Innovating With Purpose at Strayer University: Creating Mindset, Building Engagement


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Over the last several years, Strayer University has introduced ground-breaking initiatives to help solve today’s most perplexing higher education challenges. These initiatives – ranging from a retention-based Graduation Fund to address college affordability to the first employer-based free college degree program to improve workforce readiness, among many others – were born out of a commitment to student success and a legacy of innovation.

Since its founding in 1892 as a college for working adults needing post-industrial skills, Strayer has been at the forefront of disruption in higher education. It is no surprise, then, that they are a unique and early leader within the analytics movement, which is ushering in the next era of change and student success.

Early Leader in the Analytics Movement

Strayer University was an early leader in the analytics movement in higher education, and was the among the six beta institutions to first partner with Civitas Learning in 2012, working together even prior to the full launch of the Student Insights Platform® or action apps. Working closely with Civitas Learning’s data science team, data was gathered and compiled from disparate sources, and modeled to reveal powerful predictors of student success. Strayer was early to prove the most important predictor of success was not based on income or demographics, but on engagement and student work effort in the class. They have helped test and iterate Civitas Learning apps as they were developed and deployed, and continue to be a strong partner and thought leader in the analytics space within the Civitas community. Read more about their work increasing student engagement and successful course completion in this Learning Brief:


Read about Strayer’s work to build mindset and increase faculty and student engagement in online courses. This Learning Brief explores their work, including a focus on a pilot that saw a 5% increase in attendance and a 12% increase in passing.


Improving Engagement

Strayer became a founding user of Civitas Learning’s Inspire for Faculty® app, which allows online faculty members to observe trends in an individual student’s engagement, intervene with a well-timed email or other tailored intervention, and then track the impact of that activity. Through a concerted series of Engagement Challenges, Strayer found significant spikes in engagement and persistence on the part of both faculty and students when faculty used the app.

“The early success we saw with Inspire for Faculty was the motivating force behind many of the subsequent activities we’ve since undertaken around improving online faculty engagement for student success,” said Schaefer. “If we can move online faculty interactions to the same level of human interaction as on-ground faculty have, we are humanizing and changing the culture of online teaching and learning.” – Joe Schaefer, Chief Technology and Innovation Officer, Strayer Education, Inc.

Joe Shaefer
Joe Schaefer
Chief Technology and Innovation Officer
Strayer Education, Inc.

After validating the early wins found in the Engagement Challenges, Strayer entered into a full-scale partnership with Civitas Learning, and conducted several extensive pilot programs, which allowed them to isolate and dive deep into the specific interventions with the most meaningful impact for students when executed at specific times.

Pilot interventions to the most at-risk (at-risk being those with the lowest engagement scores) resulted in increases of 5 percent in attendance, 12 percent increase passing the course, a 8 percent decrease in course drop rates and a 17 percent decrease in the percentage at-risk, post-intervention. Read more about this work in this Learning Brief.

Improving Teaching and Learning

There’s no magic bullet, but in my 20 years of teaching, this app is the closest thing to one I’ve seen.”
– Michael Curran
Professor, Strayer University

Another key outcome of Strayer’s early Engagement Challenges was the identification of champion faculty who displayed much higher than average engagement using the Civitas Learning tools. The data pointed to outlier faculty who outperformed the norm in engagement – and thus, student outcomes – and allowed Strayer’s data analytics team to deep-dive into their practices and share them with all faculty looking to improve outcomes while developing their own online teaching style.

Michael Curran
Michael Curran
Professor, Strayer University

Although Strayer uncovered many champions of data-enriched teaching and learning, one particular faculty member, Dr. Michael Curran, stood out. Read more about Curran’s unique teaching style and how he uses video and Inspire for Faculty in the Learning Brief.

Improving Course Scheduling

“The data are showing us where to place our bets – where we can have the most potential for positive student impact. This is critical because we have to get to powerful, effective, interventions at scale while running multiple tests and pilots.”
– Joe Schaefer

An ongoing deep-data project at Strayer University involves research into the courses where students are not earning a sufficient percentage of credits for the amount of credits attempted. Chad Nyce, Senior VP of Academics, leads a project to improve course completion and persistence through to graduation by monitoring an elaborate system of course-specific data and making optimized adjustments.

Chad Nyce
Chad Nyce
Senior VP of Academics
Strayer University

“Incoming MBA students don’t always have a math or business background, for example,” said Nyce. “If they come in with a liberal arts background we have them take an undergraduate statistics class to build their skills, confidence and familiarity with particular math principles. In cases where those MBA students are mixed in with undergraduate business students, we found that both had declining course completion rates. This vastly improved when we split them out because it all goes back to mindset. When non-math majors are returning to college after many years to earn a graduate degree, there can be a lot of self-doubt about whether they can do the work, whether they belong. By placing them in an undergraduate class of students who had been taking multiple math and business classes recently, it brought up the fear and decreased performance.”

These types of adjustments have a real and significant impact on completion of individual courses and overall student success.

“The initiatives that Strayer University has launched to address affordability, skills gaps, online learning, and other opportunities were conceived by the need to help working adults break down the perceived barriers standing in between them and earning a college degree. Every time I hand a student their diploma at our various commencement ceremonies across the country each year, I feel a tremendous sense of pride in knowing that it was a combined effort of the student’s determination and hard work and Strayer’s unique offerings that helped them to achieve this significant milestone in their personal and professional lives.” – Brian Jones, president, Strayer University.

Brian Jones
Brian Jones
Strayer University
Improving Mindset in the First-Year Experience

Data make evident the importance of a successful first year, and at Strayer University, Schaefer and team have found that a large percentage of the overall university dropout rate occurs in the first term. To bolster a strong start for the first 11-week term, the University has launched a unique first year experience. While it is too soon to point to statistically significant results, the work merits attention.

“Some schools have orientation programs. Others have first year experiences,” says Schaefer. “Foundations of Success (FOS) goes one step further.” Strayer University students enroll in a cohort of eight classes – two at a time over four terms. Students take the remainder of the standard academic curriculum with other students, but the FOS courses are taken as a cohort, helping students create a sense of community and build confidence.

At the same time, students enrolled in Foundations of Success benefit from the instruction and commitment of their first faculty member, who dually serves as their coach, mentor and advisor for their whole first year. This unique relationship encourages them to not only consider and pursue their academic goals, but their larger personal and professional goals as well. “In the first FOS course students create a plan for their whole lives,” said Schaefer. “If you are a 35-year-old, you don’t have time to bounce around. Most of the students will be in their early 40s by the time they graduate, and do not have as much time to see return on investment from their education in their careers.” To help students do that, specific steps to mapping their future are approached in an 11-week framework. Weekly, they think about their current job, future aspirations, and what they’ll need to be qualified. They look to their personal life to identify where their support structures are and determine who will be there to help when obstacles have to be overcome.

Improving Workforce Development with Strayer@Work

Maximizing their experience and knowledge with adult learners, Strayer University formed a separate business unit named Strayer@Work. Designed to bring education and business together, Strayer@Work harnesses the power of both to solve the social and economic problems presented by the skills gap across the U.S.

“This is important because business and education have operated in parallel universes for decades,” said Strayer@Work CEO Kelly Bozarth. “Across the U.S., we spend 500 billion a year on post-secondary training – we are matching dollar for dollar what we spend on post-secondary education just to get people ready for their jobs after they graduate,” said Bozarth. “We want to use our expertise to decode what employees need to be successful. With our experience we are positioned to be at the forefront of solving this problem.”

Strayer@Work executes on that mission in three primary areas. The first is through a Skills Diagnostic. They go deep into a corporate partner’s work and uncover what skills employees really need. “Let’s take sales,” explains Bozarth. “What we have found in our research is that there are typically 25 signature skills that a sales person needs to be successful.

Kelly Bozarth
Kelly Bozarth
CEO, Strayer@Work

Traditional corporate training tried to teach a new recruit all 25 at once, overloading the employee.” By studying the top, middle and bottom performers, Strayer@Work identified ten ‘break down’ moments where the top critical skills surface. “We found there are really 8 – 10 really critical skills that will separate out the top performers. By doing this skills diagnostic companies can up-skill their employees faster, and with greater success.”

The second area of focus addresses employee churn. “The cost of employees leaving is typically triple a person’s salary,” said Bozarth. “If you want to be successful you not only have to train your workforce, you also have to nurture and retain them.” A large part of that is demonstrating an active and committed interest in developing the current talent base. Strayer@Work’s free college degrees model, which was launched via a national partnership with Fiat Chrysler, is one way to cement the partnership between employers and employees who are looking to develop skills and career paths.

“What is unique about the Fiat Chrysler partnership is that it not only was the first truly free college degree program in the country – whereby dealership employees’ fees and tuition are covered by their employer,” said Bozarth. “But it also provides employees with contextualized learning that can be immediately applied back to jobs. In the case of FCA, employees taking an undergraduate marketing class study case studies that are relevant to the automotive or manufacturing industry, for example.”

The third area of focus is a project that brings together the whole ecosystem of Strayer students, graduates and corporate partners called Talent@Work. “This uses our entire ecosystem of more than 40,000 students and 100,000 alumni across the U.S. to help companies find talent. This cycle helps companies up-skill their talent, retain their talent by providing them higher education and advancement opportunities, and find new talent among our recent graduates who are being prepared to help them fill the skills gap.”

Improving Content and Mastery

Innovation is a tenet of everything Strayer University does. Not only is this present in the institution’s operational activities but in its academic strategies as well. Dr. Andrea Backman, chief academic officer and provost, shared insights into some of the ways that Strayer constantly iterates and improves its delivery of academic programs for the benefit of its students.

Strayer Studios

“Strayer Studios is the equivalent of an internal creative agency,” said Backman. “We take content recommended by our faculty and produce it in a way that is multi-media, engaging and very relevant to students.” The Studio team of 25 creatives includes filmmakers and producers who find ways to use the power of narrative to contextualize learning for students, through educational stories.

Dr. Andrea Backman
Dr. Andrea Backman
University Provost and Chief Academic Officer

“We may use a very interesting election to tell a story that helps students understand statistics, teaching the course through the lens of a story,” said Backman. “We want to produce course content that has students feeling like they can’t wait for the next episode.”

Building academic support for working adult students is a critical challenge at Strayer University. “The needs of Strayer’s non-traditional students – who have competing family and life priorities – are fundamentally different from the needs of traditional students. It is imperative that we continually stay in touch with the resources that our Strayer students need in order to help them succeed. Tutoring is an area that we will always focus heavily on – we want to take tutoring to the next level and make it instant and social versus today’s traditional tutoring lab model,” said Backman.

“Strayer University’s work with Civitas Learning gives us a good lens into student behavior patterns, and coupled with the work of our operations analysts and course managers, we can build the best learning environments, immersing students in truly innovative learning experiences.” said Backman. Strayer University’s Academic Intelligence unit was built as a dynamic testing ground where the best minds at Strayer can research, build, launch and modify initiatives that will have positive impact for Strayer students and stakeholders – which is ultimately, at the heart of everything Strayer does.


Read about Strayer’s work to build mindset and increase faculty and student engagement in online courses. This Learning Brief explores their work, including a focus on a pilot that saw a 5% increase in attendance and a 12% increase in passing.


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