Cultural Transformation: Part One | Retention Strategies and Soft Skills

When Thomas Waite joined Everest College Phoenix (ECP) as Provost in 2013, he spent the first one hundred days launching a strategy that would prove to be groundbreaking: the Comprehensive Retention Initiative (CRI).   Student retention is high on every college’s priority list and, while there isn’t a magic bullet, the Provost’s action plan aimed with laser focus at the key driver of retention: the student experience.  The first phase of CRI was designed to address the retention sweet spot:  the first 30/60/90 days of class time during which student drops occurred at the highest rates for Everest College Phoenix.

Provost Waite recruited higher education experts Stuart Vanorny and Mary Nisbet to build the tactics and implementation plan that would change the institution’s academic landscape.  From Vanorny’s prior experience at another institution, The Pacific Institute’s Thought Patterns for a Successful Career dramaticallychanged the student experience in the first-in course with improved student success, retention and attendance. In his role as ECP’s Chief Design Officer, he redesigned the College’s Strategies for Success course using the TPI textbook as the foundation.

In addition to new TPI content in the Strategies for Success course, the online classroom was transformed to improve the student experience.  To put the changes in perspective, the number of clicks required to navigate was reduced from 143 to 43, which translates into 100 fewer pages in the course. The 50+-page syllabus was streamlined to 5 pages to be more concise, easier to read, and less intimidating.  To create a richer and more engaging student experience, the “look and feel” of the course was updated from text-heavy to a more visually-appealing design anchored by over-sized, bold, and provocative imagery.  Course weeks were “gated” to enhance student focus and student discussion board posting requirements were modified to increase rigor.

Before – Course Home Page

After – Course Home Page

Before – Week 2 Home Page

After – Week 2 Home Page

As a result of the new content built on TPI concepts and the fully-redesigned online classroom, the impact of the new Strategies for Success course was demonstrated in a comparison of student outcomes during the pre-development year compared to the year after the course was launched:

  • 23.3% increase in student success (A/B/C)
  • 20.5% increase in student completion (A/B/C/D)
  • 8% decrease in the drop rate

Even more important was the impact on student persistence during the first 90 days, the Everest College Phoenix retention “sweet spot.” The importance of the first-in course and the changes made to improve the student experience were underscored. 

A comparison of three cohorts prior to the redesign of Strategies for Success with three cohorts after course redesign showed a 7.6% improvement in students retained after 90 days.  This means that 287 more students were retained than in the previous three cohorts. The first phase of CRI also included the wholesale restructuring of Academic Affairs to be light on bureaucracy and heavy on delivery.  By eliminating layers and redundancy in academic leadership across campuses and modalities, the Provost moved his team closer to the classroom.  Doing so assured that Academic Affairs decisions related to retention and resource deployment would be made by leaders who were close to the work.In addition to reorganizing Academic Affairs, the Provost needed an industry expert to reinvent the top-down academic leadership model.  He also wanted to reduce academic bureaucracy and keep academic leaders close to the classroom.  Mary Nisbet was recruited as Dean of Academic Affairs to drive performance accountability, mentor the newly-named academic program leaders, and facilitate the next phase of the College’s retention strategy.As institutions of higher education struggle to find the formula for improving student retention, academic leaders know that employers are looking for both competency and soft skills in the hiring process.  Collaboration with The Pacific Institute was the first step on ECP’s road to cultural transformation. The initial results of the TPI/ECP collaboration were the impetus for new thinking about retention, accountability, and the role of soft skills across the organization. Cultural Transformation/Part Two will explore leadership commitment and the processes used to create shared understanding of Intelligent Heart across the organization. Leadership Lessons/Retention and Soft Skills

  • Finding the institution’s retention “sweet spot” is the first place to focus.
  • The classroom is the first place to deploy Intelligent Heart as a retention strategy and the means for students to improve their lives beyond college.
  • Flattening the hierarchy keeps academic leaders close to the classroom, improves their understanding of the student experience, and makes them more effective retention advocates.
  • Improved student outcomes are powerful and demonstrate that soft skills deliver hard results.
  • Leaders must get into the weeds to understand the student experience.