Challenges in Supporting Student Success

After five months of traveling, the Supporting Student Success research team has concluded our site visits for this academic year. We traveled across Ontario from St. Catherine’s to North Bay to Kingston visiting colleges and universities, meeting students, faculty, staff, and administrators trying to better understand how organizational structures impact student success. During the term, we have blogged about our experiences at each institution; what we learned about how different groups perceive their campus’ organization relative to student success, their organizational structure, their collaborations and programs, and countless stories about helping students succeed. We were constantly amazed at the number of times we heard stories of how individuals had gone out of their way to help a student, a peer, and a colleague — all in the name of student success.

However, student success is complex. And while there are numerous variables that  influence it, our main concern for this phase of the Supporting Student Success project was to examine how organizational structures – and by this we mean the perceptions of the various stakeholders of their organizational structure (e.g., culture, roles and responsibilities, decision-making processes, etc.) – influence student success. In this blog post, we focus on a few issues voiced by our participants (from the colleges and universities) about how some organizational structures make supporting student success more challenging.

Understanding Roles and Responsibilities

One of the challenges that we heard was the general lack of understanding of different stakeholder groups’ roles and responsibilities, primarily between faculty members and student affairs and service staff (SAS) staff. SAS staff often felt that faculty members did not fully understand their work and responsibilities beyond services like financial aid, the registrar and counselling and accessibility services. SAS staff in areas like Aboriginal Centres or leadership programs shared that many faculty appeared unaware of their programs services. These staff members were concerned as this lack of awareness limits the number of faculty who are able to connect students with resources outside of the classroom that could be both academically and personally beneficial. SAS staff also noted, that with the exception of the more active faculty members they served with on various committees or campus-wide initiatives, it was not uncommon for their primary interaction with faculty members to centre on providing assistance when a pressing issue with a student was at stake (e.g. disciplining a student for misconduct, accessibility issues, enrolment, etc.). SAS staff expressed that having this narrow line of communication with faculty members often limited their (and faculty) ability in supporting students in a timely fashion or provide them with the quality programs and services that could enhance their educational experience. We heard from many SAS staff that they wished the lines of communication with faculty members were more open, not only for faculty members to learn more about SAS services and programs for referals, but also for SAS staff to learn how they can better collaborate with faculty to support student success.

We also heard from faculty and their perceptions of the role SAS staff play supporting students, as well as the relationships faculty have with SAS staff. Most faculty members had very positive perceptions about SAS staff and their work supporting students. Many faculty members that we interviewed understood the roles of SAS staff in the more “traditional” offices like financial aid, Office of the Registrar, counselling, or tutoring and learning centres. Faculty members routinely encouraged and referred students to take advantage of these services. However, beyond these services, fewer faculty members talked about leadership development programs, career services, or experiential learning (community-based or service-learning) or even the residences unless they were personally involved. This lower awareness of SAS programs and services by faculty validates some of the concerns SAS staff raised in terms of faculty members’ ability to refer students to services if they are unaware that such programs or services exist. We found faculty members who were more active on their campus (serving on broader institutional committees, collaborating in working groups or initiatives, etc.) and those who were identified by their campus administration as cross-divisional collaborators and leaders had a much clearer understanding of the roles and responsibilities of SAS programs and services and were more likely to work and collaborate with initiatives in and out of the classroom to support student success.

Understanding roles and responsibilities is a two-way street. In our conversations with SAS staff, it was not clear that staff were aware of the complexity of the faculty role, the culture of the academy, and the incentive structure that guides tenure and promotion. Lacking this understanding makes mutually beneficial collaborative ventures more challenging to develop. Faculty members mentioned the efforts of SAS staff in supporting student success and largely appreciate them. To the extent that faculty and staff work collaboratively to support student success, there appears to be an opportunity for faculty and staff to be clearer in terms of their roles, responsibilities, the expertise they have, and how they may bring these various areas together to best support student success.

Siloed Structures

Another common challenge we heard was from students who found the structure of their colleges and universities “siloed” and difficult to navigate. They told us about having going to one office to resolve an issue only to be referred to a different part of the campus to get an answer that seemingly could have been addressed initially. Thus, students were required to visit multiple offices and meet with many staff, administrators or faculty to find answers, resolve issues, or get assistance. Some of the students that we spoke with had serious and time pressing issues they needed to get resolved; for example getting access to adaptive technology or device to assist with an accomodation, getting their name changed in order to receive payment and process grants, or to get a pre-requisite processed to enter or complete a program. This “run-around” is frustrating and time consuming, particularly for commuter, mature or students who work off-campus. Much of the “run-around” appeared to result from a lack of communication between staff across faculties, programs and services, and faculty and staff, feeling “pulled and pushed” in different directions for information and assistance. Students suggested that more open communication among these groups and greater awareness of the differences and commonalities about services and protocols would lead to faster resolution of their issues. The students that we spoke to said without considerable diligence and perseverance to get access to a service, get their questions answered, or resolve an issue, serious consequences and outcomes could have negatively impacted their educational and personal lives. In other words, the “run around” had real consequences for student success. Students found the disconnect between programs and services both in faculties and with SAS offices and the lack of communication between various entities across the campus made it easy to “fall through the cracks” if you were not willing to take determined action to resolve the issue.

Transactional Services

Students, across institutions in our study, also raised the issue that there were some services where they felt they were treated as “just a number” and individualized support was lacking. Typically students had these experiences in services that were more “transactional” in nature, those that offer “administrative” type of assistance like the office of financial aid or office of the registrar (these are only examples) where there are clear protocols and procedures to follow. Students expressed that it was in these types of offices where they often needed to resolve pressing issues that were sensitive in nature (e.g. receiving their financial aid to pay for classes or rent or registering for classes etc.). Such issues caused students to feel stressed and anxious and not receiving personable attention or timely assistance increased their frustration and stress levels, which often took a negative toll on their student experience. In response to this concern, we heard from staff who work in offices like financial aid or registrar who expressed that while they do their best to provide personalized services to all students, it is often not feasible given the allotted time they can spend per student. Such services are typically responsible for serving all of the students at the institution unlike smaller programs and services that are responsible for subsections of the student population who can allocate longer meetings with students.

Communication

Lack of communication between students, faculty, staff, and administrators in the colleges and universities was one of the largest challenges and was experienced both “up and down” the organization as well as across it as well. At a basic level, this lack of communication  prevented stakeholders from being aware of and understanding the programs and services available to support student success; and at a more advanced level, stifled collaboration from taking place. A typical example we can describe is communication in highly hierarchical organizations where communications tended to move vertically down the organization. In this scenario, senior administrators communicated and made decisions without consulting faculty, staff or students. Those individuals felt alienated from the decision making process, “not in the loop” of changes at their institution, or not validated as valuable members of the organization. However, lack of communication was not only an issue at highly hierarchical organizations. We found institutions struggled also with communication across the same level of the organization.  For example, there was often a lack of communication between various student services belonging to the same unit or in the same faculties. We also heard from students who often found it difficult to get a hold of their professors (primarily via e-mail or telephone) or contacting staff across offices on campus. Poor communication, slow communication, or no communication at all often became a very stressful experience for those involved, whether it was staff trying to get a hold of their colleagues or a faculty member, or a student being unable to reach administration or a professor for assistance. It also caused people to delay making decisions, forgo opportunities, and overall challenged the institutions’ efforts to support student success.

While we have described some of the biggest challenges we heard and observed, these are common themes across colleges and universities expressed by those who chose to participate in our study and do not fully represent any one institution, program, or group of people described above. We found that while it was crucial we highlight the positive initiatives, interactions and collaborations, and stories of people who strive to support student success, it was also vital to highlight many of the challenges we heard from our participants to expand our understanding of how organizational structures support or inhibit student success.

Looking Ahead

As we reflect on our site visits, listen and transcribe interviews, and begin to write our site visit reports, we realize we have gained a much deeper understanding of how organizational structures support, or hinder student success. Our work is far from over but we are excited to dig deep into the transcripts and examine the complexities and interactions of the many factors, people, interactions, and collaborations we heard about that support student success. As we move into Phase 3 of the Supporting Student Success study, we look forward to examining the relationships between organizational structures and student persistence and graduation. We hope our findings help institutions to learn from one another about ways in which to organize and structure programs and services designed to support students both academically and personally. We hope you continue to follow the Supporting Student Success study into its next phase and read the reports and forthcoming articles that detail our findings in greater depth. We would like to thank all of the participants in our study for sharing their candid insights about their experiences and for making each campus visit an informative and fruitful experience.

-Diliana

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