Change Management & the Small Institution – One Leader’s Story


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One of the real joys of doing the work I do is engaging with institutions across the broad spectrum of U.S. higher education: large and small; urban and rural; two-year and four-year; open and selective; public, private, and proprietary. Learning how each is working to build a data-informed culture is immensely helpful in distilling what works and for whom. As with so much in higher education, one-size does not fit all.

West Shore Community College in Scottville, Michigan is one of the smallest institutions we work with at Civitas Learning, with a head count of 1,200 students per semester. However, being small does not imply that they cannot delve into their data and find insights around student persistence risk, and then align their actions and interventions accordingly.

Dr. Lisa Stich has been the Vice President for Academic and Student Services at West Shore since 2011, and a leader in leveraging data to drive decision-making at the institution. Understandably at a small college, actions historically tend to be driven by anecdote and personal intuition. Frankly, that is to be expected when a small staff may personally know every student there! Even in such an environment, however, there are insights that may be masked or hidden which the data can expose.

In the case of West Shore, their accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), had pointed out that the college had a good amount of data available but they just weren’t using it well. In Lisa’s words “HLC expects a certain level of data and information literacy of their Academic Quality Improvement Program (AQIP) schools and we just weren’t there.” This nudge led them to incorporate a set of data-linked goals into their strategic plan.

By laying this cornerstone, a set of activities emerged which included relying on data (versus opinion) to assess multiple aspects of the institution including LMS adoption, and how traditional developmental writing impacted students’ progress versus the ALP program.

As the West Shore posture on leveraging data analytics has matured, the impact has been felt across a number of areas at the college:

  • Eliminating late registration
  • Eliminating application and graduation fees
  • Mandatory new student orientation
  • Revisions to developmental math delivery
  • First Year Seminar, an academic student success course
  • Canvas grade book for all courses, all sections
  • Supplemental instruction

Lisa states the broad impact this way, “We have consistently moved from an early reliance on best practices to a stronger reliance on best practices for us. That is an entirely different approach.”

The next step in the data-informed evolution of the campus was to come on-board with Civitas Learning as an early partner. Again, even with a small number of students and therefore a relatively small data set, the insights that emerged advanced their understanding of what factors were putting their students at risk. One finding was related to a student’s course load per term. To the surprise of some at the institution, persistence trends move to positive at just two courses per term, rather that at full-time status.

Avg Credits Attempted Per Term Illustration

It is this kind of institution-specific insight that has powered an important set of contextualizing conversations at the campus.

Moving from the world of descriptive statistics to predictive analytics required some cultural coaching to get past objections. Lisa points to a four-point change management framework that helped ground the work at West Shore. Based on her dissertation work, she had distilled four key tenets required for successful change management. In order to get buy-in and work through objections, initiatives must be:

  • Purposeful
  • Contextual
  • Integrated
  • Relationship-oriented

Particularly on a small campus where almost everybody knows everybody else, the last bullet is of special importance. Lisa points to a quote by Kevin Kruse which she finds to be especially pertinent, “To feel emotionally committed, we need to: learn, grow and be challenged, feel appreciated, work for a higher purpose, and the first three don’t matter if we don’t trust our leaders.” The importance of leadership in the emerging world of data analytics is something we’ll discuss in a future post.

My thanks to Lisa for her conversations, and for her work at West Shore Community College.

Student Center photo courtesy of Owens Ames Kimball.

Dr. Rob Robinson

Rob is the Senior Director of Strategic Services at Civitas Learning where he works with colleges and universities to help them leverage data analytics to further their mission of student success. Prior to coming to Civitas Learning, Rob was a Principal Strategist at Blackboard, an Assistant Vice Provost for Educational Technology at the University of Texas at San Antonio and a key leader with the University of Texas TeleCampus, a large-scale, System-wide organization supporting fully online degree programs, many of which were inter-institutional collaborative programs.

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