Preparing the College to Serve Today’s Students

Stories & Conversations | October 6, 2020


After almost 100 years of maintaining a status quo that was created with the traditional college student in mind, Waukesha County Technical College’s (WCTC) Vice President of Learning Brad Piazza and former Vice President of Student Services Nicole Gahagan jointly led a College-wide revolution to respond to 21st-century student needs. After analyzing the student body and examining disaggregated success metrics, it became evident that the structure and systems that existed at the College were not serving the students of today. Instead of pointing the proverbial finger at the students, the data made it very clear that asking whether students were ready for college was the wrong question; the paradigm needed to be flipped to ask whether the College was ready for the student. With low completion rates and the significant gaps in achievement they observed, the answer was clearly no.

Inspired by the college completion agenda and the Guided Pathways movement, WCTC’s Vice Presidents of Learning and Student Services dove deep into data, as well as existing policies and practices, to understand the student experience and explore how a college built to suit their student body might look. Throughout this 3-part series, you will learn how these executive leaders created transformational change through organizational learning, cultivated employee engagement, and facilitated a data-informed systems-approach to successfully design a college experience that leads to student momentum and completion.

Moderator: Melanie Harris | Strategy Director, Complete College America


  • Bradley Piazza, Ph.D. | Vice President – Learning at Waukesha County Technical College
  • Nicole Gahagan | Student Support Consultant at Mount Mary University

Click here to read the accompanying blog.


Preparing the College to Serve Today’s Students

By: Nicole Gahagan, Brad Piazza

| September 29, 2020
Preparing the College to Serve Today’s Students Preparing the College to Serve Today’s Students

After almost 100 years of maintaining a status quo that was created with the traditional college student in mind, Waukesha County Technical College’s (WCTC) institutional leaders inspired a campus-wide revolution responsive to 21st-century student needs. Motivated by the college completion agenda and the Guided Pathways movement, WCTC’s Vice Presidents of Learning and Student Services imagined how a college built to suit their student body might look. If the college were serious about wanting more students to complete a credential in a timely manner, major change was needed and every process that directly or indirectly affected students would be impacted.

In this blog, the reader will learn how these executive leaders facilitated a data-informed systems-approach to successfully prepare their institution to evolve from a stagnant, outdated college to one that is responsive to and ready for the students it serves.

Preparing the College to Serve Today’s Students

Priming the Pump for Institutional Transformation

It’s one thing to reimagine your college and dream about the enhanced student success outcomes it could bring, it’s an entirely different—and, quite frankly, overwhelming—thing to recognize the amount and complexity of the journey ahead.  Although we felt confident our ideas for a new academic calendar and student support structure would work, we were not still quite sure how we could pull this off.  Every detail of our institutional practices needed to be considered and potentially changed, which meant we needed the whole college to come along with us—the College faculty and staff who were already suffering from initiative fatigue, had endured substantial turnover in executive leadership, and had been hearing about low enrollment and budget shortfalls for quite some time. How could we possibly organize a whole college transformation that resulted in innovation rather than insurgency?

Guided Pathways

The good news was, without even realizing it, we had already started laying the groundwork for the significant change ahead. In summer of 2017, the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS), which WCTC is a part of, utilized a grant from Jobs for the Future (JFF) to develop a system-wide Student Success Center. The Center operated as a hub of information and resources aimed at assisting WTCS institutions in developing and improving student-centered pathways for the purpose of increasing student completion rates through broad-scale institutional change. It was at the first convening of the Student Success Center where WCTC was introduced to Guided Pathways, and the light bulbs started to flicker. The Guided Pathways concept felt like the antidote to our tendency to rely on small-scale, single-serving initiatives to make an impact on our retention and completion rates. This was the missing link – an overarching framework to shape the College’s collective efforts around student success. The five WCTC representatives attending the convening (Vice President of Student Services, Vice President of Learning, Dean of Academic Foundations/General Studies, Dean of Students, and Director of Institutional Research and Effectiveness), who later became the Guided Pathways core team, decided without hesitation that WCTC should adopt Guided Pathways as our guiding force and began introducing the framework to the institution.

From 2017 to 2018, WCTC made significant gains in organizational learning around student success. A closer examination of the four domains within Guided Pathways, examined through the lens of the Center for Community College Research’s Scale of Adoption, caused WCTC to take an honest look at how we were structuring students’ academic maps and how we were onboarding, retaining, and teaching them along the way. It became evident early in this discovery process that WCTC was not living up to its mission to provide accessible education. Given our student population of working adults, the way we delivered face-to-face instruction drawn out over 16 weeks was not a good fit, and our student success rates showed it.




Efforts to increase credential attainment and close equity gaps will not result in significant or sustainable advances in student success until these efforts are systematic, integrated, and implemented at scale. Leading with Guided Pathways as a primary framework under which to operate a college allows this to occur, but operationalizing Guided Pathways so that it is embraced across the organization is no easy task. We had our work cut out for us. The core team identified the need to create a team for each domain. A cross-section of over 70 individuals from around the College were selected to help us take a deeper dive and advance the institution’s work in each of the four domains. Each team was provided a charter with key deliverables and an aggressive timeline to provide the core team with recommendations.

Key Messaging

With the critical work of self-audit and re-imagination off to a strong start, the notion of major changes ahead began to take hold across the campus. And while the Vice Presidents of Learning and Student Services began to seriously consider changing the academic calendar after learning about other college’s success in doing so, we hadn’t yet announced this possibility to the College. We wanted to be empathetic to the initiative fatigue pervasive at WCTC and to the level of ambiguity surrounding what the implementation of Guided Pathways would mean for the College. It’s also important to note here that, just a couple years before, there was a prior attempt to change the academic calendar that failed to garner the institutional buy-in to pull it off. As a result, we knew that this time alignment and messaging were going to be key to any chance of successfully changing the academic calendar structure and all the supporting systems associated with it. We needed language that addressed “the why”—the unspoken questions that if left unanswered would sabotage any attempt at change.

As the core team continued to immerse itself in Guided Pathways and educate the greater college community about why an undertaking as large as implementing Guided Pathways is good for students, we realized we needed a central statement to shepherd our decisions. Like most institutions, many competing interests for a finite amount of resources exist at WCTC. If we were going to finally align the College’s historically fragmented and incomplete efforts to holistically support student success, then we were going to ensure every decision that would ultimately impact students needed to aim in the same direction. In turn, the Guided Pathways core team got to work on creating a shared vision for student success that expressed the College’s intentions.

The statement read: All students are empowered to achieve their goals in an inclusive and welcoming environment where they are proactively engaged and equitably supported.

This vision was well-documented and regularly communicated to the college community. Every key word or phrase is defined in order to ensure clarity around what we are striving for institutionally. Creating the student success vision proved to be a worthwhile task. We could fit all initiatives under this guiding principle and could judge every important decision against it. This student success vision statement serves as a constant reminder of the ultimate student outcome we are trying to achieve and is reinforced at every level of the institution.

Using the student success vision as a backdrop, the core and domain teams continued to review data and literature, make discoveries, and ideate about how we could design a college responsive to our student population. Increasingly, the need for major transformation became evident. For quite some time, we had the impression that the traditional class schedule of two semesters with the summers essentially off was not the model that met our students’ needs. We were unjustifiably forcing working adults with significant life responsibilities to fit into our outdated box, and our graduation rates were indicative of how we were failing our students. As much as it pained us to consider the college’s reaction, we knew a new academic calendar structure was the only solution for serving our student body. In anticipation of the confusion, questions, and overall frustration surrounding another “flavor of the day,” we developed a simple to remember tagline that captured the essence of all that we were doing to improve the student experience at WCTC.

Everything we do must be done in the spirit of helping “more students earn a credential in a timely manner.

Again, this phrase was well-documented and communicated regularly across campus. Because it was purposely short and to the point, it became a battle cry for the institution to rally around. No one could argue with the College’s goal of increasing competent credential completion.

Moving the College from Buy-in to Engagement

The process of developing the vision statement and tagline helped us achieve clarity in our own minds about the direction we were headed and why we were taking the College on this arduous journey; ultimately, this was imperative to our successful facilitation of institutional transformational change. Oftentimes leaders become so steadfast in their attempt to execute a plan that they forget about the purpose. This myopia easily creates a target for obstructionists, and before you know it, the initiative is either incompletely implemented and never takes effect or is dead on arrival. Our genuine effort to capture the spirit of our work was time well-spent; the key messages resonated with the college community, and we were ready to move forward.


With the messaging in place and taking hold, we were ready to make the leap and announce to the College that we would be changing the academic calendar by fall of 2020. With just 18 months to pull this off, we quickly (but carefully) crafted an expansive communication scheme that was inclusive of micro and macro communication needs of internal and external stakeholders, genuinely garnered feedback, and transparently provided information and data. Although this was not intentional, in retrospect we can see that our communication efforts spanned three phases—the learning phase, the implementation phase, and the results phase.

Phase one, the Learning Phase, truly began 18 months earlier when we started introducing Guided Pathways. We spent this time nurturing organizational learning around who our students are and how they were performing at our institution in preparation for the unknown changes that would occur as a result of the discoveries made by our Guided Pathways teams. As the reality that we would endeavor to change the academic calendar crystalized, we slowly shifted the conversations to understanding how institutional structures and systems impact student success and began exploring national examples of how shifts in term duration, instructional modalities, and support service delivery can move the needle on enrollment, retention, and completion. Model calendars and other promising practices were shared with the College for consideration. Most importantly, we wove “the why” by way of our student success vision statement and tagline throughout every opportunity to communicate with the college community.

Phase two, the Implementation Phase, emphasized how the institution is concretely taking steps to increase college completion and who has been involved in this planning and decision-making process. Phase two gave us the opportunity to introduce other champions of the Guided Pathways and academic calendar work into the communication matrix. More than 70 faculty and staff were hard at work on Guided Pathways implementation, and another 40 were just starting their intensive work within their academic calendar teams (described below). It was important to demonstrate they were making progress on what we set out to do and that this was an inclusive process being driven by individuals outside of administration.

Phase three, the Results Year, has just begun. At this time, we are concentrating on communicating the early wins we have experienced and the success we can expect to observe in the future.

Our communication plan was rolled out to various stakeholder groups and through various means. We were cognizant that each stakeholder group was going to be motivated to change the academic calendar and its associated student support systems for different reasons, and we tailored our communication to speak to their interests and concerns. In addition to multiple in-person presentations, we used a combination of print and electronic media to deliver our message. Press releases, articles, emails, logos, infographics, videos, a dedicated webpage, and more were used to inform the internal college community and our external partners. Throughout it all, we have kept student success at the center of our message.


Perhaps the most critical aspect of our first phase of communication was our discussion about data. We utilized both national and institutional data to make our case for such a systemic change. Our first task was to garner institutional buy-in around the idea that the College shares the responsibility to increase post-secondary credential completion. Whether a student succeeds does not rest solely on the individual student’s shoulders. Institutions must also do some heavy lifting to create an environment that is conducive to learning and persistence for all students. WCTC shared national data from organizations like Completion by Design, Complete College America, Lumina, Achieving the Dream, American Association of Community Colleges and the Community College Resource Center to demonstrate how the structures and systems we build and maintain impact enrollment, retention, and completion. To bring the story closer to home, we used institutional data to illustrate who are students are and how they are (or are not) succeeding in our current infrastructure. As mentioned in the last blog, this was an eye-opening experience for many within our community.

As we inched closer to finalizing the new academic calendar structure, which would feature five eight-week terms and year-round attendance, we showcased institutions who implemented a similar academic calendar and their improved student success outcomes. Again, to localize the narrative, we also shared some of our own data. A handful of our academic programs were already offering courses in an eight-week format—enough to produce meaningful data. The college community learned that WCTC was already experiencing noticeable success with shorter terms; course success rates for eight-week courses were about 10% higher than they were for 16-week courses, and withdrawal rates for eight-week courses were about six percent lower than they were for 16-week courses across several semesters of data.




Team Structure

At the time we made the announcement to the College that we were going to have another go at altering the academic calendar, we didn’t know exactly what that would look like. All we knew was that we had just 18 months to pull it off.

For the first time in the College’s history, the entire institution was undergoing a major evolution in the way we did business. Because we were using the Guided Pathway framework to organize our ideas about improving student success, pieces of this work were already underway. Faculty, deans, and student service professionals were gathering input and proposing new instructional and student support strategies. However, launching a new academic calendar would require more than the student-facing Divisions of Learning and Student Services. All of the functions that support teaching and learning, such as facilities, human resources, information technology, etc., needed to be reimagined as well.

There was a lot of work to accomplish in a short amount of time. We needed to divide and conquer and trust in the expertise of our colleagues to complete the detailed work necessary to fully and effectively deploy a new academic calendar. We created a team structure that included one steering team and ten sub-teams. The steering team was charged with ensuring that effective planning, project management, and implementation happened on time across the College. Purposefully, the Vice Presidents of Learning and Student Services stepped back from leading the steering team. While we were the sponsors for the team and remained very close to the work, we selected our Registrar and Dean of Academic Foundations/General Studies to lead this team. This deliberate choice further solidified the strong relationship between Learning and Student Services, a partnership essential to this effort. Asking mid-level managers to take this responsibility also helped to flatten the hierarchy which created an atmosphere for honest dialog. The rest of the team included a cross-section of professionals from advising, marketing, instructional managers, faculty, and more.


Steering Team


The sub-teams represented the functional areas that would be impacted by this change. Unlike the Guided Pathways domain teams that were chartered with prescriptive deliverables and timelines, we did not charter the calendar sub-teams. We merely provided them with a statement of their work (listed below). After that, it was up to each team to determine how the new calendar would impact their departments and make any necessary changes to their practices. A key aspect of our team structure was the liaison system we established. Each member of the steering team was assigned as a liaison to at least one sub-team so that there was accurate and timely information sharing between teams. Twice a semester, we convened all calendar sub-teams to provide updates with one another and to avoid overlap and identify how each team impacted the other teams’ work.

  • Steering: Guide the college-wide work critical to effectively transition from a sixteen-week term format to an eight-week term format by facilitating the change management process. Strategize and support the operationalization of the new academic calendar and provide direction and resources for the revision and implementation of key college processes necessary to perform core business activities that impact student success.
  • Student Support Services: Ensure student support services are accessible and value-adding to all students by adjusting policies, procedures, practices and processes to coincide with the 8-week term format; train staff to utilize a standard coaching methodology to uncover potential barriers to success throughout the student lifecycle; create a “seat-ready” campaign for student success in an 8-week calendar and various course modalities.
  • Communication: Develop and implement a communication strategy and specific messages for internal and external stakeholders.
  • Curriculum: Examine & revise the entire curriculum change process; develop systematic policies and procedures that support a more efficient and effective process that results in accurate degree audits for students.
  • Evaluation: Provide data to support change; assist in the development of new programs in the 8-week term format; assess effectiveness of key college processes; evaluate student success metrics; create student enrollment and success reports accessible to end-users; create faculty workload report.
  • Enrollment Services: Ensure enrollment services are accessible and value-adding to all students by adjusting policies, procedures, practices and processes to coincide with the 8-week course format; train staff to utilize a standard coaching methodology to uncover potential barriers to success throughout the student lifecycle.
  • Instructional Design/Faculty Professional Development: Develop trainings that help faculty 1) identify the best-fit course delivery option that promotes student success and credit accumulation, 2) design courses according to selected delivery option, and 3) teach and assess w/in an 8-week term format & varying delivery modes; train faculty how to further leverage technology to aid in course delivery; promote strategies that enhance student success in an instructional setting.
  • Scheduling: Assist Associate Deans with scheduling courses in Infosilem; build new course blocks; recommend program scheduling options that support expedited credit accumulation; explore system capability to schedule courses a year at a time; ensure consistent start times, manage space utilization.
  • Facilities & IT: Ensure access to physical and technological resources that support student success within 8-week term format.
  • Educational Resources: Ensure student access to educational resources that support success within the 8-week format; resources include availability of learning resources (textbooks) and other course materials, OERs and AERs, 24/7 technology support, remote testing services.
  • Human Resources: Create a system that tracks for ACA and WRS compliance; assist in the development of workload measurement and compensation; modify faculty contracts for year-round academic calendar; revise job descriptions to attract candidates who align with institutional priorities;  create a new employee onboarding experience and training/professional development opportunities that emphasize student success; recognize and celebrate employee contributions to the operationalization of the new academic calendar.

While all of these teams were critical to fully implementing our new academic calendar, we want to emphasize the importance of four teams who were essential to accomplishing the overhaul of our academic calendar structure and the student support systems associated with it. During our webinar, we will highlight the communications, enrollment services, human resources, and instructional design/faculty professional development teams, who were especially critical for the successful launch of our new calendar this fall.

Continued Learning

More students earn a credential in a timely manner…  The end game is simple, but the path to getting there is complex. Every day, another layer of the onion is peeled, and we have the opportunity to ask ourselves why we do the things we do the way we do them. If the answers to these questions can’t be distilled down to “because it helps more students earn a credential in a timely manner,” then we must look for better ways. The effort to make our college ready for the student is work that never stops, and we continue to learn about our students and our college all the time.  We hope we have helped inspired ideas about how your college can go about this important work, too.

If you are considering changing your academic calendar, the third and final blog in this series is for you. We will focus explicitly on the way we shaped our practices and processes within the Learning and Student Services Divisions to make our new calendar operational. While some items have already been touched on in previous blogs and webinars, we will go into detail about specifics related to our revamped academic maps, program and course curriculum, instructional delivery, student onboarding process, advising model, and more.

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