Setting the Stage to Serve Today’s Students

By: Brad Piazza, Nicole Gahagan

Stories & Conversations | October 20, 2020

Thank you for attending the third webinar in the series by Waukesha County Technical College, “Setting the Stage 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) 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.

When ushering in transformational change, institutional leaders must consider the structures and systems that support the college’s ability to fulfill its mission. Intentionally designing an institution, physically and operationally, to enhance student success requires the efforts of the academic and student service divisions to be united and lock step in their approach to achieving equitable student outcomes.  In the last installment of this blog/webinar series, audience members will learn more about the specific strategies implemented to create a college experience that is built to help students earn a credential in a timely manner.


  • Bradley Piazza, Ph.D. | Vice President for Learning at Waukesha County Technical College
  • Nicole Gahagan | Student Support Consultant at Mount Mary University
  • Christopher Daood, Ph.D. | Dean of Student Support at Waukesha County Technical College
  • Jennifer Fontanini | Associate Dean of Communication Skills and Social Science at Waukesha County Technical College
  • Bethany Leonard | Dean of Academic Foundations and General Studies at Waukesha County Technical College
  • Brenda Kujawski, MBA | Management & Quality Instructor at Waukesha County Technical College
  • Rachel Burling | Registrar at Waukesha County Technical College

Click here to read the accompanying blog.




Setting the Stage to Serve Today’s Students

By: Brad Piazza, Nicole Gahagan

| October 13, 2020
Setting the Stage to Serve Today’s Students Setting the Stage 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.

Setting the Stage to Serve Today’s Students

When ushering in transformational change, institutional leaders must consider the structures and systems that support the college’s ability to fulfill its mission. Intentionally designing an institution, physically and operationally, to enhance student success requires the efforts of the academic and student service divisions to be united in their approach to achieving equitable student outcomes.  In addition to considering all of the functions that underwrite instruction and training (i.e. curriculum design, textbook adoption, faculty workload and contracts, classroom technology, professional development, etc.), if a college wants to seamlessly launch a new academic calendar—especially one that features year-round education with multiple entry points, all other college systems must be addressed as well. Student-facing administrative policies and procedures, such as admissions, financial aid, course scheduling, registration, and all of the student support functions, must be recalibrated for alignment with the new academic calendar model.

Below, we highlight several of the practical ways we set the stage to serve today’s students when shifting from two traditional 16-week semesters with primarily face-to-face instruction to five eight-week terms with multiple modes of instructional delivery. Each of these components will be further discussed during the webinar on October 20th, when the Vice Presidents of Learning and Student Services invite five of their colleagues to share the details of their work related to these essential functions. We will provide information about the key aspects of each function, as well as insight into the change process we used to address them.

Academic Maps

The first pillar of Guided Pathways is mapping academic pathways to student end goals. Over time, our pathways became saturated with prerequisites and additional courses added to the program without scrutiny. Rather than serving as a map for the most direct route to credential completion, our pathways often included unnecessary detours. If our goal was to help more students earn a credential in a timely manner, we knew major overhaul was in order for most programs. Associate deans and their teams were charged with developing pathways that made it realistically possible for associate degree seeking students to complete their program within two years by using all five of the eight-week terms with the assumption that students would continue enrolling at their typical cadence of two courses per term. Associate deans were also expected to front load gatekeeper math and English courses within the first 30 credits. To help shift the paradigms of those working to revise pathways, an interactive all-day retreat that included step-by-step exercises, templates, and checklists was offered. Details about the activities of the day will be discussed during the upcoming webinar.

Right-Sizing Course Curriculum

Just as our program curriculum became bloated over time, so too had our course curriculum. In order to convert courses from 16 weeks to eight weeks, courses needed to be scrubbed for unnecessary content. It was imperative faculty did not simply cram 16 weeks’ worth of coursework into eight weeks. Taking the stance that not all competencies are created equally, we asked faculty to divide their course content into three buckets: 1) critical competencies students must demonstrate by the end of the course, 2) emerging knowledge students are cultivating and will build upon during future courses, and 3) what is simply “nice to know.” Faculty were asked to identify just three primary objectives for their course, and those become the key areas of assessment. The second and third tier competencies then act like pebbles and sand filtering through the three big rocks of the course. It was important to help faculty think of this process as pruning the curriculum for health, like you would flowers and other vegetation. Revising course curriculum did not dumb it down; it made it stronger.

The coveted time of two faculty in-services were dedicated to assisting faculty with making changes to their curriculum and transitioning to an eight-week term model. Our instructional design/faculty development team (introduced in our last blog and webinar) led these in-services. A very effective exercise, known as the “bucket exercise” was featured at one of these in-services and will be discussed in the accompanying webinar.

Faculty Development    

Good planning, good academic maps, and good intentions are not enough to ensure that our students are getting the best experience in this new format.  Our faculty and their ability to successfully convert courses are and continue to be key in this work. Very few of our faculty come into WCTC as trained teachers; rather, they come directly out of business and industry and into our classrooms. It’s our job to train them to become effective educators. The good news is, WCTC already had early adopters and innovators who had independently been testing out eight-week course durations, alternative delivery modalities, and creative course design. We assembled these individuals to create a team of faculty and instructional designers who became critical for our faculty. This team has planned and facilitated our in-services for the past two years, has created and delivered an on-demand faculty support course through Canvas, and provides targeted training and support in each academic school.

We need to warn you that this can be a significant resource investment. Each faculty member on the team is given a 50% release from teaching, which then has to be backfilled by other instructors. We hired a full-time limited term employment (LTE) instructional designer for 1.5 years. We also allocated a significant amount of money to pay our faculty for course conversion. These financial choices aligned with our institutional priorities and have provided us with the resources necessary to do this work well.

Developmental Education

A significant amount of effort to redesign developmental education at WCTC was well underway by the time the new academic calendar was launched. This work, led by the Dean of Academic Foundations/General Studies, aimed at expediting the completion of developmental education by flattening the layers of developmental courses, eliminating redundant courses, redesigning curriculum, and transitioning from lab/self-paced learning to guided/course-based instruction. We also introduced the Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) model so that students could be co-enrolled in developmental writing at the same time as English composition. We did the same with mathematics. We also created “enhanced” sections of gatekeeper courses–even beyond English and math–so that there is additional time built into courses for direct support for those who need it. To further embed support throughout students’ navigation through developmental education, we hired a Student Success Navigator, whose primary function is to “case-manage” students enrolled in developmental education courses. The groundwork done to developmental education at WCTC prior to the change in the academic calendar structure has been crucial to making it realistic for a student to complete their degree in a timely manner, even if they require developmental education.

Multiple Measures

Shortly after the redesign of developmental education, WCTC moved away from emphasizing placement tests as the main method for determining where students should start their academic journey. Although there had always been a long list of ways students could demonstrate prior knowledge for placement purposes, we still over-relied on testing historically. By spring 2018, we were ready to change this and implemented a more streamlined version of multiple measures. After some internal research and several conversations with faculty, WCTC determined that high school GPA was sufficiently predictive of success in students’ first courses. WCTC created a new policy that allowed for students who had high school GPAs of 2.6 or higher within the last 15 years to enter directly into college-level courses, and we now utilize this as our primary method for determining placement.

Course Scheduling

The Vice President of Learning and the Manager of Financial Aid met with each Associate Dean to review every program plan. To receive final approval, each program plan needed to meet the following criteria: 1) courses would be scheduled in a manner that allows students to qualify for full financial aid, 2) courses would be scheduled during each of the five eight-week terms, utilizing the entire year, and 3) sound rationale was provided for any course not converting to an eight-week format. While the majority of courses at WCTC are now offered in eight-week durations, not all courses were able to make the change. For example, courses tied to clinicals and practicums that relied on the cooperation of external partners were not forced into an eight-week model.

Additionally, we asked that each program create a course offering matrix that is viewable on our website so that advisors and students could see what courses would be offered in what term and in what modality. An example of what is on each program website page is below.


Financial Aid

Our best advice is to have your financial aid leader at the table from the very beginning. You might remember us joking about the first attempt at building a flexible academic calendar that was reminiscent of the Wild West with no rules or regulations about when students could start and stop courses. This initial idea quickly unraveled when it became clear students’ ability to obtain financial aid would significantly suffer. Having an expert in financial aid as a key partner in this work supports decision-making and helps build sound structure into any changes you might make to your academic calendar.

At WCTC, we maintained our standard term designation with the Department of Education. We simply divided our traditional semester into two parts; from there, we adjusted disbursement dates so we could better monitor students’ progress through their coursework and ensure they were optimizing their financial aid eligibility. We also focused student-facing communication on encouraging students to register for both fall 1 and fall 2 in order to qualify for the maximum financial aid award. Finally, we aligned our financial aid calendar year with the academic calendar year so that summer was a leading rather than a trailing term. This helped to ensure that students would have financial aid available for them to utilize during the summer term.

Registrar Policies

Along with financial aid, there were a number of policies within the Registrar’s office that needed to change in order to accommodate our new academic calendar model. First and foremost, we tightened up how we allow courses to begin and end within the parts-of-term. While this might not seem like a big step, it was key in ensuring compliance financial aid regulations, streamlining end-of-term processes, and avoiding overall student confusion. We aligned important dates, like the last day to withdraw from a course, with our new timeline. We altered our policy related to “incomplete” grades; now grades of “incomplete” must be changed to a letter grade by the end of the subsequent eight-week term as opposed to the end of the full semester. Finally, in a “rip the Band-Aid off” fashion, faculty also voted to change our grading scale to better align with other higher education institutions.

Advising Redesign

Proper advising is crucial to timely completion. Guided Pathways inspired a closer examination of our current advising practices and revealed significant flaws in our existing model. Our advisors managed caseloads of 600-800 program students and were also responsible for responding to 100s of inquiries from prospective students. There was no room left for proactive outreach or timely intervention, and oftentimes our students waited weeks before being able to see their advisor. Further inquiry into the current state also revealed that advisors relied on multiple incongruent sources of truth for program information. Many times, advisors created their own “cheat sheets” to assist students with selecting the right courses in the right sequence.

Our goal was to ensure that all students entered their program of study with a sound academic, career, and financial plan. With the current advising structure, this goal was out of reach. Over the course of a few years, we made three important moves that broaden our advising structure: 1) we moved our career development staff from across the parking lot and into the main college center, contributing to our ability to ensure students are selecting the best program fit for their career goals, 2) we shifted the responsibility of prospective student advising to admissions advisors, newly created positions resulting from budget reallocations, and 3) we created the opportunity for students to receive personalized financial aid assistance by funding financial aid advisor positions through staff restructuring and resource reallocations. Sharing the workload with other professionals freed up academic advisors to perform the proactive retention work they formerly did not have the bandwidth to do. The new academic maps mentioned above also streamlined advisors process when assisting students with course selection, helping us to ensure students are on the most direct path to completion. With the expanded advising model, students can now receive quality individualized support at any point in the student lifecycle and can access this assistance in a timely fashion.

Welcome Center

WCTC reimagined and remodeled the front door to our campus. We aimed to design a physical space that was welcoming and easy to navigate. Visually and functionally, prospective students can now enter the building and know where to go and who can help them. Any insecurity about starting college they might have had prior to walking into WCTC is instantly reduced when they are greeted immediately upon entering the building and directed to friendly and knowledgeable stuff who can assist with any new student questions. Admission, career, financial aid, and academic advising staff all utilize this space to assist with onboarding our new students as we help them solidify their academic, career, and financial plan and prepare for success at WCTC.


New Student Orientation

New Student Orientation was a staff and time-intensive series of events at WCTC that could not be continued within our new academic calendar structure. Now that students can enter WCTC at five points during the year, we needed to streamline this portion of our new student onboarding process. Although transitioning to an online orientation had been discussed for years, it was never prioritized. But with the push to provide courses in alternative delivery formats, and then with the urgency that the COVID-19 pandemic produced, we were finally forced to make this pivot. We purchased an orientation software and created a cross-functional team to create a fully online new student orientation. The revised orientation aligns with our goal of preparing students for long-term success through focusing the curriculum on academic, career, and financial readiness. Students have ample time to complete the orientation modules at a pace that is convenient for them. The online system also checks for understanding. During our webinar, we will share some results related to students’ success with using the new online orientation system.

Student Support Services

The student support services team (introduced in our last blog) was charged with ensuring that 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. The team also helped engrain a standard coaching methodology into every interaction with students to uncover potential barriers to success throughout the student lifecycle. Of particular importance was the team’s responsibility to create a “seat-ready” campaign for students’ success in an 8-week calendar and various course modalities.

To accomplish these charges, the team had to engage with about 20 areas on campus to ensure holistic supports were available to students. The matrix of change represented above is an example of how the team strategically considered the current state of each support service and compared it to what would be needed in the future state. This exercise allowed each support area to thoroughly think through every dimension of their services and determine the changes they would need to make to help students be successful in the new academic calendar structure. The team also created visuals and planning documents for student support staff members to use when assisting students with the transition from two 16-week semesters to five eight-week terms.


Please be sure to join us for our final webinar on Tuesday, October 20 at 2pm CDT, when we will have guest panelist share details about the items highlighted in this blog.

This brings us to the end our blog series; we hope that you found it to be informative and thought-provoking. This was simply WCTC’s journey on the path to helping more students earn a credential in a timely manner. Of course, we were only able to scratch the surface of our story; there is so much more that could be shared! Ultimately, each college needs to find their own best path to transformational change in the name of equitable student success. If there is any assistance that we can provide to you, please do not hesitate to contact us!

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