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In an earlier blog post on Future Students, I mentioned my work as an advisor with the American Council on Education’s Learner Success Lab. ACE’s lab model is used by institutions as a comprehensive change management tool. When I was Associate Provost and Dean at Salem State University, a comprehensive public regional on Metro Boston’s North Shore, I had the opportunity to co-chair Salem State’s work in ACE’s comprehensive internationalization lab. I had been so impressed with the effectiveness of this model that I jumped at the opportunity to serve as an advisor when ACE launched the Learner Success Lab in 2020. 

The lab model brings together teams from higher ed institutions (10-15 at a time) for a period of roughly 18 months, pairs teams with advisors, and leads them through a change management process giving them access to tools, peers, experts, and accountability mechanisms. The learner success lab focuses on “persistence and completion, life design and career exploration, and workforce skills development” with the institutional goal of creating an overall strategy for learner success. The focus is on analyzing current policies, practices, and the utilization of resources to develop a set of recommendations to better align these elements to focus on learner success. This is approached by looking at existing work in the following areas: 1-Life Design; 2-Career Readiness; and 3-Completion. 

I am currently working with institutions in two cohorts. I am an advisor to Western Oregon University (WOU) in the first cohort and New Jersey City University (NJCU) in the second cohort. The first two weeks in February were packed with Learner Success Lab insights. 

On February 2, I spent a very full day on the campus of NJCU for what is known as the site visit. The lab process for cohort 2 launched in the fall of 2021 and will wrap up in the spring of 2023. The advisor makes two visits to each of the institutions they are matched with. The site visit is done early on in the lab process to get a sense of the campus and the various stakeholders. In my day at NJCU, I started off with a student-led tour of the campus and then met with the lab team, the lab committee, an enrollment management team, a group of student leaders, the all university advisor group, and I had a one-on-one meeting with President Henderson followed by a meeting with Provost Jhashi. I had lunch with the academic deans, provost, and team leaders and dinner with the provost and team leaders. At the end of the day, one member of the team asked me what was most surprising about NJCU. My reply was unexpected. I shared that I was shocked to see that the College of Arts and Sciences was housed in a Michael Graves building! Another team member quickly replied - we also have a Maya Lin sculpture on campus. WOW! You can see Wall Street and much of lower Manhattan from Jersey City. It is a pretty phenomenal place. The students were lovely - always! About half of them were from Jersey City. The majority of the students I met identified as both first generation and BIPOC. The faculty and staff were engaged, student-centered, and passionate about their work. It was inspiring to spend time with them. 

The next week, on February 10, I spent another very full day advising. This time we were on zoom for a virtual peer visit at WOU. This visit was supposed to be in-person, but Omicron presented too many challenges. My peers were Virginia Fraire, Vice Provost for Student Success and Strategic Initiatives at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), and Jonathan Millen, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at University of New England, who joined me in zooming into the Pacific time zone from Mountain and Eastern. This was a culminating experience for the team at WOU. They had much to celebrate. Although they have experienced what many of our institutions have experienced in the last two years - COVID-19, enrollment drops, reductions in staff and faculty, leadership transitions, and doing more with less, they are really doing phenomenal work. The day ended with a symposium that included a student roundtable and a series of presentations of promising practices from faculty and staff. WOU’s president and provost both gave closing remarks that really crystalised the importance of engaging our institutions in campus-wide future-oriented work, especially in times like those we are living through. 

In challenging times like these, it is tempting to delay work that involves institutional change. At these institutions, this process created a collaborative space for faculty, staff, administration, and students to work together to create a vision for a future with increased learner success, reminding us of why we are here and of the importance of the work we are doing.

Mary Churchill is the former chief of policy and planning for Mayor Kim Janey in the city of Boston and current associate dean for strategic initiatives and community engagement and director of the Higher Education Administration program at Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University. She is co-author of When Colleges Close: Leading in a Time of Crisis.

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