The Story Behind the College Student Success Innovation Centre at Mohawk College

How broad institutional support, strategic partnerships, and opportunistic student affairs professionals launched the only research centre focused on student success – at a 2-year or 4-year institution – in Canada.

By Tim Fricker, Dean of Students at Mohawk College who also leads the College Student Success Innovation Centre (CSSIC).

To the best of my knowledge, the College Student Success Innovation Centre (CSSIC) at Mohawk College (in Hamilton, Ontario) is one-of-a-kind. We have had a great deal of success in a relatively short period. Since 2015, we have received external funding for 7 research projects totaling 1.7 million, and we were just recently awarded the Program Innovation Award from the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS), which is an association similar to NASPA and ACPA. And, as a community college offering primarily 1-, 2- and 3-year credentials, our graduation rates have steadily risen from 60% to 65% since 2012, a rate of improvement unmatched by our key comparator colleges.

I have been asked many times in recent months how we got to this point, and truthfully, it is difficult to distill our journey down into a couple of key determining factors. There are a few things that I continuously point to including: 1) unbridled institutional support, 2) a host of key partners, and finally, 3) the unique ability of our Student Affairs team to see and respond to potential student success research opportunities. At every single stage of our work over the last seven years, each of these three elements has played a critical role in paving the way for the CSSIC to become a reality.

The purpose of this article, with the invitation from Tricia Seifert, is to share the lessons we have learned that could be useful for others wishing to put more energy into Student Affairs and student success assessment or research. As Student Affairs professionals, our strength is our focus on students and day-to-day practice, which means we also do not naturally celebrate or share our successes publicly. We are humble practitioners by nature. This creates a scenario where our institutions could forget how core Student Affairs work is to the academic mission, which in times of fiscal restraint (such as what is occurring in Ontario right now, which is another story and blog altogether), we risk diminishing resources that could increase barriers and reduce support for our students. With those caveats, here are three foundations of our College Student Success Innovation Centre at Mohawk College.

Broad Institutional Support

I am not entirely sure where this research centre had its true beginnings, but since I joined Mohawk in 2012, a few important things occurred. Perhaps one of those items was the creation of my role at that time – Director of Student Success Initiatives – which was designed to coordinate new campus-wide efforts to improve student outcomes. Around that time, our then President made a public call to action, challenging all faculty and staff to work harder to improve student persistence and graduation rates.

In 2014, we launched our first Student Success Plan to guide our institution on this journey. As part of this work, we committed to more purposeful data capture activities, which was more than just counting participation rates; it was our way of starting on an important assessment, evaluation, and research journey. This included introducing and using new advising software and dedicating a lot of energy toward supporting our staff with training as they evolved their practice and reporting.

Institutional support in these efforts spanned all traditional college silos. We had committees that included membership from academic, student, and corporate services. We had – and still have – a strong relationship with our Mohawk Students’ Association, too. With these close partnerships, requests for data with our corporate partners in the Institutional Research office were easy to navigate, and collaborations with faculty, our Deans, and the Centre for Teaching and Learning also proved to be quite natural, especially when we began our work with HEQCO’s Learning Outcomes Assessment Consortium later in 2017.

In 2016, with a new President, we doubled down on our commitments to students in a few meaningful ways. First, our new Strategic Plan included pillars such as student success and graduate success. Second, our new Strategic Mandate Agreement (a process directed by our provincial government) included a pitch for a new provincial student success innovation and research centre to build off the momentum we had gained over the last few years. Each of these institutional commitments, pillars, and ideas created a strong foundation of support to allow our team to take risks, say yes to new opportunities, and start to build the collective experience in student success research that we have today.

Strategic Partnerships

The first partnership we formed, which is still a critical partnership today, was with Dr. Ross Finnie at the Education Policy Research Initiative (EPRI). Dr. Finnie and his team of researchers helped ‘mine’ some of our data to help us learn more about our students. Seven reports were produced between 2012 and 2014, including the first drafts of a predictive model that would later be critical to our early research efforts.

Many interesting partnership opportunities presented themselves to us during this time, including participating in the Supporting Student Success research, and some additional projects with EPRI. For each, we simply offered our support ‘in-kind’ and received no payments. Much of this work was done off the side of my desk and those of my Institutional Research colleagues. In other words, as new additional work that was not formally planned in annual work plans, we fit it in wherever we could. With Dr. Finnie, for example, he brought in partners from Statistics Canada and Employment and Social Development Canada (both federal government agencies), for what eventually resulted in some fascinating research about the labour market outcomes of Canadian students. We also needed to develop data sharing, transfer, and privacy agreements, and go through the research ethics process. These experiences helped us learn even more about our students, our institution, and how the research process should work at the community college level. Understanding how to structure partnership and data sharing agreements also became an essential element of future collaborative research with other institutions and our local school boards.

Our partnership with EPRI included participation in HEQCO’s first Access and Retention Consortium, and a number of publications, including one on a new approach to proactive advising. As an aside, HEQCO’s approach to funding research through participation in consortiums has been a tremendously productive practice, fostering a network of partnerships across the province. HEQCO has been our largest funder and an enormously supportive partner for many years. Our success would not occur without the funding opportunities or the partners we met through them. For example, we met a number of incredible researchers through HEQCO, who we then joined forces with when HEQCO launched their second Access and Retention Consortium. This resulted in new Online Goal Setting interventions for our students, based on the work of Dr. Patrick Gaudreau at the University of Ottawa, and a new, ‘psychologically attuned’ way to communicate to students on probation implemented with the expertise of Dr. Shannon Brady at Wake Forest University. New publications with both Dr. Gaudreau and Dr. Brady via HEQCO are forthcoming later this summer or early in the fall.

The largest partnership we are a part of today, however, is one that we are leading with funding from the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities in Ontario. With EPRI as a research analytics partner, we are replicating our proactive advising study from 2015 at Humber College, Centennial College, and Fleming College. In doing so, we are trying to support them in their student success research in much the same way that we have received support in the past from HEQCO and so many others.

An Opportunistic Student Affairs Team

Every time an opportunity to participate in research presented itself – one that provided the chance to learn more about student success – we said yes. This would not be possible without broad institutional support, or strong partnerships inside and outside of the college; however, this also required a willingness to work extremely hard (often off the side of our desks) to complete the work. While research was envisioned within the Director role when I started in it, the projects were often not a part of our regular operational work plans. So, I needed to find ways to make it happen.

One of my early approaches was to create a new part-time staff positon in my department to support the operations of the projects. I cobbled together funds from within my budgets, secured small amounts from our Vice President’s contingency fund, and built in staffing dollars into funding proposals. I also pitched this new role as a support for divisional assessment, evaluation, and special projects to have a more current and tangible set of outputs. In many ways, this staff position and the projects themselves were like a set of pilot projects. And, due to the success of the research and the local assessment projects, I was able to propose and secure this as a full-time permanent role. We used a similar approach to create our Learning Outcomes Assessment Consultant role just this past spring.

We have continued to build an incredible research team, for which I am grateful to work with every day. These wonderful people include faculty and Student Affairs professionals alike. Each person and each role contribute to the work of the centre in important ways.

Conclusion

The formal launch of the CSSIC was only a year and a half ago, but we had been on the research path for quite some time before that. This started with the College investing in new and strategic leadership roles. Some of the next critical milestones included the investment in external reports to understand our students better. Then, we invested time and resources into data capture initiatives and staff development. We started to support external researchers who were doing research on student success, and provided them with access to our data and student population. Through all of this, we learned many critical lessons, and forged partnerships that prepared us to apply for research funding. The opportunities continued to present themselves, and we continued to apply (to receive funding) and re-invested in more roles on campus and with more partners. This was the point when the Ministry funded our Centre, and we have continued our momentum since then. Some of it still happens off the side of our desk, too, but we are passionate about understanding ‘what works’ in our student success programming.

There are two final reflections that I think are important. First, while the Centre is led by Student Affairs, the vision was one that was collectively endorsed and has been continuously supported across our institution. Faculty and our partnerships with Ideaworks (our Applied Research department), the Institutional Research Office, and the Centre for Teaching and Learning continue to play an increasingly important role.

Second, there are no shortage of articles and books that express the role of institutional culture on the outcomes of students. Project Deep and the work of George Kuh immediately come to mind. The idea that there is a pervasive student success ideology and approach on campus that everyone understands that ‘this is the way we do things here’ has been shown to be a defining factor of institutions that have strong student outcomes relative to others.

So, on that note, last month when I was cleaning out some old files in my office, I came across a 2007 concept paper from a large committee on campus titled, The Centre of Excellence for Students, Access, and Success. Perhaps our Centre really isn’t so much of a new idea. Leading in student success is part of our ethos at Mohawk – and I suspect it will continue.

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