Chapter 6: Innovating to Advance Success for Students’ Diverse Needs

by Elizabeth (Beth) J. Stroble, Ph.D.

Posted on January 15, 2020

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Alarms sound about the future of American colleges and universities as innovations proliferate to address the dynamics of how we educate, whom we educate, for what purpose, and with what value. Near universal agreement can be reached that business as usual will not serve anyone well; yet, no single solution can address the challenges we face. One size never fits all.

We know that students’ lives and careers are being shaped by emerging trends in technology, big data, and artificial intelligence. At the same time, humanity’s most pressing issues—hunger, poverty, security, inequality, health, and education—make preparing students as global citizens an urgent issue and measures to increase greater understandings of one’s self and others worldwide a priority. The need for ongoing, life-long learning is increasing at the same time that economic conditions have challenged students and their families, making affordability and value important concerns for them and for us. Changes in the demographics of college-goers mean that those we have typically identified as non-traditional are now in the majority. As a result, universities that thrive will tailor the innovations they adopt to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student population with the intention of advancing both access and success. 

Webster University was founded by the Sisters of Loretto in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1915. As a college founded by women for women before women could vote, Webster’s history of innovating to address the specific needs of a population of underserved students dates to our founding. Webster has evolved to welcome an ever more inclusive community. In the 1960s, Webster welcomed male students and transferred the college to a lay governing board, leaving the identity of a Catholic women’s college for independence with no religious affiliation. With the opening of Webster programs onsite at Fort Sheridan and Scott Air Force Base in the 1970s, student profiles expanded to include military service members. At the same time, Webster pioneered in opening residential campuses in the cities of Geneva, Vienna, and Leiden, meeting the needs of Europeans seeking accredited degrees taught onsite in English by an American university. Today, campus locations also include Athens; Accra, Ghana; and Bangkok and Cha-am, Thailand; joint degrees are offered onsite with Chinese institutions in Shanghai and Chengdu. Programs at each site respond to the needs of globally diverse student bodies as well as local communities. In 1999, Webster created its first fully online programs to meet the mobility needs of military students and working adults. As Webster continues to innovate, in fall 2019 we launched a new campus in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in partnership with the Republic of Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Higher and Secondary Specialized Education. Coupled with a distinctive history and an unparalleled global diversity is Webster’s entrepreneurial approach to taking education to our students in ways that advance access and success. 

Building a Strong Bridge
Like many U.S. private colleges and universities (Rine, Eliason, 2015), Webster enrolls a growing, increasingly complex, and proportionally large number of first-generation and low-income students at our St. Louis campus. The social and economic imperative to serve these students well requires intentional partnerships with area organizations, K-12 schools, and community colleges to boost their aspirations for a degree and create predictable pathways to enrollment. We have pursued new approaches to financial and academic support. The most distinctive among these is TAP (Transition and Academic Preparation), created in 2011, which continues to evolve to build a bridge for targeted students’ first year at Webster. 

The social and economic imperative to serve these students well requires intentional partnerships with area organizations, K-12 schools, and community colleges to boost their aspirations for a degree and create predictable pathways to enrollment.  

TAP is a summer bridge program for entering freshmen and transfer students with fewer than 30 credits. Created by Webster’s Academic Resource Center (ARC) as a way to address the first-to-second-year retention gap between fully admitted and conditionally admitted students, the impact of the program on closing this gap is remarkable, leading to its recognition by St. Louis Graduates as a key element of Webster’s success in graduating underrepresented students with less debt (Holt, White, & Terrell, 2017). TAP engenders active engagement from entities across campus and support from sponsors. Approximately 60% of TAP students are first-generation students, and almost 50% are from racially underrepresented populations. Prior to TAP at Webster, first-to-second-year retention rates for fully admitted students were six percentage points higher than for conditional admits. Now, the average rate for TAP students is 79.8%, compared to our first-time full-time student population as a whole at 78.5%. 

In summer 2019, thirty students participated for 10 days in this residential program, offered at no cost to students and awarding three academic credits. This summer’s TAP had many participating units: First Year Experience and Undergraduate Persistence, Career Planning and Development, Emerson Library Staff, Counseling and Life Development, Student Employment, and Title IX. English department faculty led a writing workshop. Former TAP participants help staff the program, providing important leadership opportunities and role models. Through immersion in campus life, TAP participants gain confidence, build a community of peers, and know how to tap a network of support among faculty, staff, and key offices on campus (Stroble, 2015). As these students begin the academic year, their progress is closely monitored by ARC staff through our electronic student success tracking and scheduled in-person interactions. Through these means tailored to students’ specific circumstances, Webster has successfully closed the retention gap that once existed between these students and their fully admitted counterparts. 

Teaming for Students’ Success
While TAP focuses on advancing access and success for targeted undergraduates in St. Louis, different methods are required to address the needs of the many Webster students who complete their degrees fully or in part through our online offerings. In the past academic year, 62% of our students took an online course during their program. Since offering our first fully online degree program in 1999, Webster’s portfolio of online undergraduate and graduate programs and certificates now tops 70. We operate our own Online Learning Center and provide support for effective faculty development of courses and teaching in online formats. 

In the past academic year, 62% of our students took an online course during their program.  

Meeting the needs of students who seek convenience, portability, and quality, we have innovated in the program content and format, means for supporting students’ success, and the technologies and content management methods for asynchronous and synchronous formats (Clinefelter, Aslanian & Maga, 2019). The students who enroll in our online programs—primarily graduate students who are working adults—represent the geographic diversity of the places Webster students call home. They may or may not ever take an on-ground class at one of our 50 metropolitan and military campus sites nor the St. Louis campus. Military students often complete courses while deployed. While online courses are not as popular among students at our European, Asian, and African campuses, it is not unusual for students worldwide to enroll in these courses and programs. As a result, the innovations required to improve students’ success in the online environment depend on a comprehensive team effort that engages academic and support units across the breadth of our system. 

The Online Learning Center team tasked with leading the initiative conducted a needs analysis, calculated baseline retention data, and completed attitude surveys to design a series of interventions identified to address students’ needs. An iterative process was used to release new resources and interventions in recruiting, admissions, advising, faculty preparation and support, and student supports every nine weeks. Among the interventions were a model and staffing focused on coaching for success, learning management software to alert us to students needing help, enhanced training for faculty and staff, improved online course design, and better communications and support. 

In a two-year series of improvements, a number of results were achieved in processes and technologies, and both students and faculty reported more positive views of online learning. Most importantly, after these series of interventions and improvements, we saw results in online students’ success. These included slight improvements in students’ course completion, with greater impact for fully online students and those associated with metropolitan campus sites. At larger sites where staff have larger numbers of students to support, the effects of early alert software and more intrusive advising had stronger positive effects. Over the two years’ time, negative grades (F, WF, etc.) decreased, and positive (A, B, CR) and neutral grades (W) increased. These results further stronger progression to degree for more students and diminished numbers of students facing academic discipline such as probation or dismissal. Persistence rates improved, and a larger percentage of students continued to take classes in the following year. (Webster University, 2017). 

These initiatives are but two of many innovations already in place or under development to meet the twin needs of access and success. Both are critical to living our mission of assuring high-quality learning experiences that transform students for individual excellence and global citizenship. So, what is on the horizon for meeting even more Webster students’ unmet needs? 

Two of the newest programs are designed to create greater success for black undergraduate students at Webster. Our history of success in graduating diverse populations is exceptionally strong at the graduate level, resulting in identification by Diverse Issues for 26 years as the top nonprofit public or private institution in the nation for awarding graduate credentials to black students. For those years, Webster black graduate students earned more than 35,000 degrees and 31,000 certificates, representing roughly 18% of our total alumni. To achieve comparable levels of success for black undergraduates requires new, targeted innovations. 

This fall we will offer an Introduction to Africana Studies course for undergraduates that includes, with substantial donor and institutional scholarship support, eight days based at our Accra, Ghana campus. In this “Year of Return,” students will gain a grounding in the intellectual history of Africana Studies and experience firsthand the social, political, and economic linkages of black life in Africa and the African Diaspora. Because we know the power of the study abroad experience for students’ learning and persistence, we believe this initiative will capitalize on the significance of our dedicated campus in Africa and faculty expertise to strengthen success for the enrolled students. Also new to Webster is RISE (Resilience Inspires Student Excellence), a program targeting sophomore black males with focused mentoring, a Success 101 course, academic advising, ARC support, and engagement with student campus groups. RISE will continue to support these students throughout their undergraduate degree. 

These two innovations make it clear that we cannot think that THE next big thing or that any one thing will assure the sustainability of our institutions nor advance students’ access and success.  

These two innovations make it clear that we cannot think that THE next big thing or that any one thing will assure the sustainability of our institutions nor advance students’ access and success. Because the students we serve have varied and diverse needs, which continue to evolve in ways as dynamic as the world in which we live, so must our institutions evolve to meet their needs. Only through disaggregating graduation and retention data to identify specific areas of need can we know what needs to be done. To assure inclusive access and success demands interventions that target specific student populations’ challenges. That is the challenge and the opportunity for institutions that seek to innovate to advance success for students’ diverse needs. 

I thank faculty and staff colleagues who show such a commitment to meeting each student’s needs through the innovations described in this chapter. Their cooperation in providing program details and data points were essential to this story of student success initiatives at Webster University. 

Works Cited: 

Clinefelter, D. L., Aslanian, C. B., & Magda, A. J. (2019). Online college students 2019: Comprehensive data on demands and preferences. Louisville, KY: Wiley edu, LLC 

Holt, J.K., White, B.R., & Terrell, S.K. (2017). Degrees with less debt: Effective higher education strategies for underrepresented populations (IERC 2017-2). Edwardsville, IL: Illinois Education Research Council at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. 

Rine, P. Jesse and Eliason. Expanding Access and Opportunity How Small and Mid-Sized Independent Colleges Serve First-Generation and Low-Income Students. The Council of Independent Colleges. Washington, D.C.: The Council of Independent Colleges, 2015. 

Stroble, Elizabeth. Attainment = Retention. Accessed 18 July 19. 

Webster University. Open Pathways Quality Initiative Report. Higher Learning Commission. 2017.