Five Years of Title III: Successes, Challenges, and Words from the Wise(er)
Presenters: Patrick Keough & Donald Staub – Carteret Community College
Presented at the Noel-Levitz National Conference on Student Recruitment, Marketing, and Retention in Denver on July 26, 2011.
The purpose of our presentation is to give a brief overview of what we have accomplished – qualitatively and quantitatively – through the course of the grant (which ends in September of this year). To achieve the overall goal of increasing retention at the College, the grant has three primary objectives: Advising, Distance Learning, and Outcomes Assessment. This presentation will highlight the retention efforts we have made in each of these three areas, with particular attention to the successes and challenges of implementing each.
The crux of the presentation will be the Learnings section: If you are looking down the barrel of a five-year T3 grant, and you asked me what I thought was important, I’d give you this list.
• If you’re planning on proposing, do your best to name names – qualifications, etc…it shows you can hit the ground running. It may also demonstrate commitment.
You’ve probably heard this already, but it really strengthens your proposal when you can say that you have qualified people ready to go as soon as the grant starts. If you do have those positions filled, on paper, make sure you emphasize their qualifications and experience. I can’t say to what degree this strengthened our application, but we already had a director of DL in place as we were writing the application (DL is one of our three objectives). Again, we were able to highlight his qualifications. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, it demonstrated institutional commitment. We were not asking to fund yet another (high dollar) position that would need to be sustained down the road…the funding was already in place.
• BTW…we’re pretty efficient around here, and it still took us about three months to get the three key positions filled: Director, Instructional Technologist, Staff Assistant. For us, the staff assistant was critical. I cannot underestimate the importance of this position; do not make it an afterthought. Key skills and qualities are: Attention to detail, Time management, Ability to work under pressure and short deadlines, Good with numbers, Organized, Courteous, Ability to deal with multiple personalities – our staff assistant deals with everyone from the president to the VPs, to ALL faculty and staff.
Over the course of the grant, our assistant did a lot of great things, but the thing that she was best at was the financials…not budgeting, but record-keeping, reporting (on a monthly basis), purchasing, tracking orders, and nipping at my heels when certain things needed to be taken care of (e.g. Budget revisions).
• Become friends with the Business Office – ours does the draw downs, budget revisions, and purchasing.
I have a colleague, who shall remain nameless, that directed a T3 grant at another community college. Between IT and the Business Office at her school, it would take 18 months from PO to actual receipt of any computers ordered through the grant. At our school, it generally takes about one month for turn-around.
This is partly because our Business Office is extremely efficient. The other reason is that we have a solid relationship with our Business Office, and, by extension, the Administrative Services division. It should be needless to point this out, but we all know that words and deeds do not always follow each other: Don’t butt heads with the people who control the flow of your resources.
You don’t need to shower them with gifts (although chocolate can go a long way!), however, my advice would be to don’t wait to speak with them until there is an eleventh hour emergency order. In short: follow their guidelines and policies (even when they may be unwritten); cultivate relationships – stop by and say hello when you’re in the neighborhood…it doesn’t always have to be work related; look for other ways to work together (In my case, I work with the staff on developing and assessing outcomes. I also have found myself on committees, coincidentally, with some of the key players, allowing me to develop and strengthen relationships); and, don’t forget, they are people too who like to be appreciated – compliment the staff, praise them, and thank them vociferously – in person, in public, via email, or in a meeting. There’s no need to be an apple polisher, but they are trying just as hard as you to do their job effectively.
• Become friends with HR – we have written well over 100 contracts in our five years of providing PD. If we didn’t have a good working relationship with them, the last five years would have been miserable.
Likewise, HR is valuable to you. They will help you hire key staff, and they will ensure that those paid via contract are processed in a timely manner. The same philosophy holds true here as with the Business Office: These are folks who are trying their best to perform effectively. Appreciation and praise (and sometimes, simple acquiescence) go a long way; conversely, conflict and antagonism will set you back…way back. It’s like the old adage about the pedestrian crosswalk: you may have the right of way versus the oncoming car, but in the end, who really wins? (hint: the larger, more powerful force).
• Become friends with IR/IE – they have the data, which unlocks they door to successful APRs, and efficient monitoring of progress toward your objectives…and any other time you may need numbers.
• Evaluator – your evaluator, if s/he is good, is worth their weight in gold. And how do you know if you have a good evaluator? For me, the most important indicators are: How well does s/he know EDGAR? (if they don’t know what EDGAR is, run in the opposite direction). And, how good are they at reviewing your books? And, the only real way to determine this is to find an evaluator who has deep T3 experience – as an evaluator and/or as a director (our evaluator has both!). Our evaluator comes twice a year to check on our progress, to look under the hood of compliance and to pull out the dipstick of our financial record-keeping.
Our evaluator and I made a presentation at the 2011 IDUES (T3 & T5 directors’) conference in D.C. [For full disclosure, I was not able to attend the conference/presentation...I was in Russia on a Fulbright]. Our presentation centered on the qualities of an effective evaluator and an effective relationship, between you and your evaluator.
In essence, the sooner you get your evaluator on board, the better. In fact, in an ideal situation, the evaluator should be a key member of the grant writing team. In addition, as I mentioned above, find someone who has a nose for compliance and good record keeping.
Your evaluator should be able to easily follow the trail of purchasing. If it’s confusing or incomplete, you need an evaluator who will candidly tell you so. I always say: I’d rather have an ornery evaluator looking over my books than a nice auditor.
• Get the word out.
Quantity does not always equal quality. In fact, I’d be the first to admit that of our three objectives (advising, assessment, and DL), Advising has been the weak link…and it doesn’t take much looking around on our blogs to figure this out. Our T3 blog is Assessment-heavy, and DL has their own blog dedicated strictly to issues of DL at the College. Nevertheless, this has not stopped us from trumpeting our work. And, I firmly believe that the grant and the College have benefitted from this.
How do we benefit from sharing and transparency? The grant has benefitted through an ongoing, public dialogue that provides us with feedback on our implementation strategies. Every blog posting, every conference presentation,** every podcast and webinar is an opportunity for us gain constructive input on our objectives. And, to boot, it increases positive exposure (we hope!) for the College.
Other ways of getting the word out include: Twitter (both through an account where I send out tweets, or through our blog – new posts are promoted through an auto tweet); Getting involved in state-wide organizations (I’m on the executive committee of the nascent North Carolina Community College Learning Outcomes Assessment Group); Sign up for the T3 listserv (a great way to answer questions and keep a finger on the pulse of all things T3…I’ve been introduced to a number of other directors via the list). There are other possibilities as well: I’ve poked around on LinkedIn, but have been unsuccessful in discovering a T3 group – although it’s been about a year since I last looked for one. Of course, let’s not forget Facebook (full disclosure: I don’t do FB, so I’m not sure of it’s capabilities in this regard).
Finally, and I truly believe this: It is valuable to keep your program officer in the loop. He gets a CC whenever I send out an email to our advisory committee. He also receives occasional notifications of new blog posts – just to remind him that we’re still blogging. I don’t expect him to read and respond, but he has applauded us in person and publicly for our transparency. My caveat here would be to ensure that your grant is on a solid foundation before attracting too much attention.
** this is our fourth Noel-Levitz presentation…and our second invitation to speak at this annual meeting. Over the course of the grant, I have made 14 presentations at the national level; 10 at the state level.
• Sustainability (remember, this is a developmental grant)
Is it sustainable? With any major investment of time or dollars, this was our guiding question. It started with online tutoring, carried through to outcomes software, early alert, advising software, and most recently, Blackboard and Moodle. In any one of the investments, we ran it through the test of: How much is this going to cost the College once the funding is gone? Can the College really afford this without T3?
More often than not (and increasingly so in years 3-5), the answer was No, the College cannot sustain this initiative beyond the life of the grant. Therefore, the solution was generally: let’s do it ourselves. This started with online tutoring, continued with outcomes, early alert, and advising software packages, and it has helped drive us from Blackboard to Moodle. In each of these cases, we could have justified the start-up expense and utilized T3 funds to get us out of the box, but there would have been no way that we could have sustained the likes of SmartThinking or Weave Online.
We found ourselves developing solutions in- house that we could tweak as needed. The conclusion has been a much greater ease of institutionalization. For the instances where we needed software, we either dug a little deeper into our knowledge of existing software. For instance, the web-based Datatel has the capability to serve as advising software. It provides the functionality we need for advising, plus the learning curve for faculty and staff has been minimal because of their familiarity with Datatel.
For our grant, 20% (~$300,000) of our funding has been dedicated to Professional Development. And, we can proudly say (I believe) that the lion’s share has been spent on giving faculty and staff the skills and expertise to more effectively perform their duties. In other words, most of these dollars have gone toward sending faculty and staff to trainings, conferences, etc. These folks, in turn, bring the knowledge or skill back to campus and share it with their colleagues.
What we have not done a lot of is bringing in the hired gun. Our belief (one part cultural, one part philosophical, and one part fiscal decision-making) has been to develop and strengthen the expertise from within. So, let me break this down.
* One part cultural.
What we learned early on is that the campus culture did not respond favorably to external assistance. You can’t be a prophet in your own land, but when we brought in a few hired prophets, they stoned him and her. I’ll be honest. We brought in an excellent consultant from Noel-Levitz to conduct a preliminary analysis of our enrollment management and advising systems. After he left and we were entertaining the notion of more intensive work with N-L, the push back was so intense that we had to scrap that idea. We could not move people out of their defensive posture – when it came to someone from the outside analyzing their work. We tried a different consultant, with the same results. Our advice- do a cultural map before bringing in external support.
* One part philosophical.
At the same time, what we realized was that you can be a prophet in your own land. You may not be the best prophet, but if it helps us move forward, let’s do it. Therefore, we really turned our focus to sending faculty and staff out, and letting them bring the message home. This has turned out tob quite effective. Again, it’s not perfect, but after five years, the number of staff, full-time, and part-time faculty who have gained expertise, and who have something to teach, has spread to all corners of the campus.
The implicit message here is that our community is rather tight knit. There are more than a few that call us a family – in the true sense. We all know each other, we get along the best we can, but to some degree, like any healthy family, we are a little dysfunctional, plus we’ve got a few eccentric aunts and uncles.
So, for five years, quite a few of us have traveled to a number of state and local conferences together. At last year’s state DL conference, 12(!) faculty and staff participated. Two weeks ago, eight faculty and staff traveled together to an Institutional Effectiveness institute. And, most importantly, it’s not always the usual suspects.
One additional, yet critical piece of our approach is accountability. If T3 is putting resources into attending PD opportunities, then the faculty or staff member must understand that this is a reciprocal agreement; that the expectation is that the individual will “give back” by sharing knowledge, providing training, etc… This may take the form of actually providing a workshop, a brown bag luncheon discussion, or a post to the blog. On paper, this looks great. In reality, it’s been a different story. If you take this approach, I urge you to set up a formal system of accountability. Otherwise, you’ll spend a lot of time chasing folks who will give you nothing in the end.
* One part fiscal decision-making.
This is where we come back to the sustainability issue. By putting faculty and staff in a position where they have to be active participants (i.e. they learn and then they must share), it reinforces the knowledge and skill that they are gaining. By spreading this wealth, and by reinforcing it as often as possible (by either attending multiple PD opportunities, or by presenting the material back on campus), we are solidifying its place on our campus. This creates a sustainable, relatively inexpensive source of knowledge, experience, and energy.
In the end, T3 catalyst for changing the attitude toward PD. Whereas in the past it was viewed more as a receptive activity, the shift is on toward PD being more productive.
• Be a change agent.
Another important lesson. You may be in an enviable position. You need to learn how to think and act like a faculty member (if you are not one already). But, we all know that “faculty member” is not a monolithic concept. There is wide variation in how faculty, and staff, perceive professional development. I have learned that the more I interact with faculty and staff, particularly in a one-on-one (or very small group) situation, the better I am able to work effectively with them. This is not say that I have them eating out of my hand (see my comment above about eccentric aunts and uncles), but by developing a rapport, I am able to converse more freely with a greater number.
Likewise, one valuable lesson I have learned about getting support for change is to communicate early and communicate often. Our faculty (and I’m sure that some of yours too) must be organized…for months in advance. We are working on the 2013-2014 calendar now. Textbooks for SP 2012 need to ordered soon. So, by asking them to “fill out this form and get it back to me by Friday” may be met by compliance, but it will not be met with quality, nor will it be met by joy. The further out you can communicate an upcoming task, workshop, etc… and the better clarity you provide (give examples on how you want it done), the more smiling faces that will greet you when they see you coming.
But, it should not all be on you. Administrative buy-in is key also. Not as a hammer, but as a lever. Administration is not just the president and relevant VPs…it includes deans and chairs as well. Everyone has to buy in. Conversely, the more disciples you create within the faculty, the more leverage you will have as well. Patrick’s DL initiatives are always successful because they are mostly faculty-driven.
• Keep your eyes on the prize
As all of the stuff above suggests, sometimes it’s easier to focus on the details, and lose sight of the big picture. Why are we doing this, anyway? Keep in mind that this is a “Strengthening Institutions” grant. In your proposal, you pointed out the major challenges at your school, and you said that “we’re going to do this, and this, and this to make us better.” Ultimately, better at retaining students. So, it all gets back to – and, along with “can we sustain this?” the other critical question when considering investment of resources is – What will this do for retention? And, if you do a cost-benefit analysis, sometimes the answer is Yes, sometimes it’s No.
• Learn to be flexible
According to the rules, you must stick to your objectives. If you want to change them, you need a very compelling reason to do so. However, this is not say that you cannot change your strategy (one of the beauties of T3 funding and the flexibility provided).
One of our objectives is Advising. In our proposal, we were going to develop an advising/counseling center (CAPS), directed by a full-time faculty member on release, and staffed with some part-time counselors. The faculty member driving this concept decided to return to full-time teaching shortly after the grant started. No other faculty member was willing and able to assume this role, and we had not requested funds to hire a full-time staff member to take over the reins. So, a little juggling of full-time counselors later, we were left with a solution that really did not work because the heart and soul and vision had left. So, this objective floundered for two years. Why, you ask? Because we were consumed by our ten-year accreditation re-affirmation process, and the time and energy were not there to work a new solution.
In the fourth year of the grant (after we had successfully gained re-affirmation), we turned our attention once again to advising. It was a major piece of our QEP (SACS), which had a different vision, and a different visionary than the original incarnation of our advising/CAPS center.
The moral of this story is that we knew we had to maintain our objective – Strengthen Advising – but we also knew that we desperately need to change how we were going to approach it. This past year has been fast and furious in terms of re-designing, re-structuring, and re-tooling for a new-look advising. We are sad at this point that the T3 funds will soon be out of reach, but we have made terrific strides because we were flexible in the way we approached this objective.