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“Programmitis.” This term, coined a few decades ago by Daryl Smith, senior research fellow and professor emerita of education and psychology at Claremont Graduate University, was used to describe campus efforts to address the increasingly diverse student body. College and universities looked at students as a problem needing to be fixed with interventions -- with programs. Smith was concerned with not only the deficit orientation but also the sheer inadequacy of such approaches. The programs typically reached few students, touched them too lightly and applied a Band-Aid to a gaping wound. Smith called instead for institutional transformation to support diverse student success.

Higher education has been making efforts to address a more diverse student body for four decades, yet the needle has moved very slowly, with only minimal progress in improving the retention and success of first-generation, low-income and racialized minority students. The same goes for adult, commuter and part-time students, while statistics for other groups -- such as transgender, learning-disabled and LGBTQ students -- are not even tracked. Higher education has added programs and services “on the side” without a substantial rethinking of its core functions and practices.

In Becoming a Student-Ready College, Tia Brown McNair and her colleagues called for campus leaders to rethink their efforts at wishing for different students while putting in just marginal supports. The authors noted the need, as well, for significant changes and indicted the organizational structures in higher education as being impenetrable for students.

The calls for institutional transformation and culture change have either been too daunting, leading campuses to continue piloting small changes, or have left higher education administrators not knowing how to approach such a process. What many of those administrators have yet to grasp is that the problem is not students. Rather, the issues stem from the reality that colleges and universities have never been set up to serve first-generation, low-income or underserved racially minoritized students.

In Recognizing and Serving Low-Income Students in Higher Education I traced how colleges, minority-serving ones aside, developed historically to serve the wealthy and elite, demonstrating how ingrained the patterns of whiteness, class and privilege are. In those analyses, I highlighted how the structures of higher education institutions prevent students from succeeding, and I underscored why side programs and services alone will never suffice. A total restructuring is needed to disrupt these embedded patterns and to reorient campuses for a new student body.

In a new report, “Creating a Diverse Student Success Infrastructure,” from the Pullias Center for Higher Education and the American Council on Education, I provide a pathway for leaders to conduct this institutionally transformative work, modeled on the examples of campuses that have been successful in undergoing such changes. I base my ideas not only on empirical data but also on sound research from systems theory -- research that demonstrates that when the infrastructure is aligned to support a change initiative, transformation is more likely to occur and be sustained.

The infrastructure of a higher education institution includes core features that facilitate organizational functioning and day-to-day operations, including planning, governance and decision making, policy, finance/resource allocation, information and institutional research, facilities and information technology, human resources and development, incentives and reward structures, and metrics and accountability. The more these elements are strategically leveraged and aligned with the goals of diverse student success, the more an institution can mobilize to effectively serve such students.

For example, policies dictate the actions of faculty and staff members and create the conditions in which student success can be achieved or not. Because policies establish the possibilities for action, they are a strong driver of systems and cultural change. Academic policies such as grading on a curve encourage competition and signal to students they are in a survival environment, not a thriving one. Another example might be scheduling policies that do not allow for students in the same cohort to take classes together and form a community that encourages their success.

This is particularly important because campus policies were generally established when institutions were not diverse. If senior administrators routinely examine key institutional policies, they can work to change the ones that create barriers -- such as those related to admissions criteria, student advising, curriculum, staff hiring criteria and faculty promotion and tenure. Left unexamined, however, such policies can shape a set of experiences that is exclusive rather than inclusive.

An effective institutional infrastructure includes three core elements related to change and systemic support for diverse student success:

  • Implementation of interventions to support students. Efforts to put in place proactive advising, for instance, without investments in the infrastructure -- such as technology, training and policy review -- are likely to face serious challenges. In contrast, when the proper infrastructure is in place, it facilitates, eases and often speeds the adoption of new programs and initiatives.
  • Institutionalization of sustained interventions over the long run. Interventions often come and go due to a lack of tangible support or because organizational hurdles are too overwhelming. Yet if campus administrators pledge continuing financial, policy and leadership support for cross-campus mentoring, for example, then change agents will struggle less to overcome organizational inertia and any issues that prevent them from supporting and embedding the change.
  • Culture change resulting from having student success values integrated into the day-to-day work of the campus. That includes the campus’s decisions, processes and activities. For example, moving from grading on a curve to a more developmental grading approach reinforces and embeds an institutional ethos that supports student success rather than a sink-or-swim approach.

Ultimately, the benefit of the student success infrastructure is that it can lead to broader institutional transformation. As more and more elements of the infrastructure are aligned toward the same underlying values of diverse student success, the more likely it is that the entire campus will be a different place.

It is time to move support for diverse students from the margins of institutions -- in isolated programs and services -- to the center. With the right infrastructure, we can finally make good on the values that promote the success of all students in college.

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