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Holistic Review in Graduate Admissions: What We Need to Know

The pathway to becoming a scientist leads through graduate school, and graduate admissions committees are the gatekeepers. How do they determine who will be successful in a research career and who will not? Admission processes vary widely by discipline and are often opaque, but we do know that the top two strongest predictors of admission to graduate school in general are GRE scores and the selectivity of the student’s undergraduate institution.

Though these factors may determine admission, do they really predict success in graduate school and beyond? The Educational Testing Service (ETS), which produces the GRE, cautions departments against relying too heavily on GRE scores alone, stating that the test “does not and cannot measure all the qualities that are important in predicting success in graduate study,” such as motivation, grit, and a sense of curiosity that can drive scientific discovery. Furthermore, GRE scores correlate strongly with race, ethnicity and gender, placing underrepresented students at a disadvantage in the process and potentially shutting out those with potential to excel.

An emerging solution is holistic review, a university admissions strategy that assesses an applicant’s unique experiences alongside traditional measures of academic achievement such as grades and test scores. Evidence supports the use of holistic review in undergraduate admissions and in the health professions, but the extent to which graduate programs are using the practice (and using it right) is less well-known.  Universities and research funders like the NIH and NSF have become increasingly aware of the role of admissions in shaping the future scientific workforce, making this topic ripe for further inquiry and discussion.laboratory-385349_1920

On November 3, from 12:00-1:00 p.m. Eastern Time USU, APLU and the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) will host a webinar on holistic review in graduate admissions to explore what we know and what we don’t know about the practice, and how we can fill critical gaps in evidence. Because of the urgent need for diversity in science fields, we will highlight some of the things schools might look for during the admissions process that predict achievement in these disciplines. We’ll also talk about a proposed pilot of holistic review in the graduate school context. If you’re interested in admissions, diversity in STEM, or graduate student success generally, this webinar is for you.

Speakers include:

  • Courtney Ferrell Aklin, Ph.D., Program Director within the Office of Special Programs in Diversity at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). A clinical psychologist by training, Dr. Aklin manages a portfolio of cooperative agreements and research programs related to diversity.
  • Julia Kent, Ph.D., Assistant Vice President for Communications, Advancement and Best Practices at the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS). She has conducted research on a broad range of topics in graduate education, including PhD career pathways, diversity issues, and graduate admissions processes, as well as a Hobsons-supported initiative on holistic review in graduate admissions.
  • Ambika Mathur, Ph.D. Associate Provost for Scientific Workforce Training, Development and Diversity, and Dean of the Graduate School at Wayne State University. Dr. Mathur has worked extensively to develop a diverse workforce at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. She serves as a PI on a five year $21 million NIH grant to develop a pipeline for underrepresented students into graduate programs (Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity, BUILD).
  • Keivan G. Stassun, Ph.D., Stevenson Endowed Professor of Physics & Astronomy and Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Education and Research at Vanderbilt University. Dr. Stassun is also founding director of the Fisk-Vanderbilt Masters-to-PhD Bridge Program, through which Fisk has become the top producer of African American master’s degrees in physics and Vanderbilt has become the top producer of PhDs to underrepresented minorities in physics, astronomy, and materials science. He is co-author of the Nature article A Test that Fails, which describes how reducing emphasis on the GRE and increasing attention toward other qualities that predict success in graduate school will improve diversity in STEM fields.

We hope you can join us on November 3 for an engaging conversation on the opportunities and challenges of using holistic review to strengthen diversity in the scientific research workforce. Click here to register


Work Smarter, Not Harder: Three Suggestions for Promoting Technology Usage on Campus

Ever since the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, technology has been used to disrupt, advance, and transform the education sector. In recent years, an entire industry has developed around ed tech, with dozens of conferences and events around the world each year. The pace of innovation is accelerating, and universities are now presented with a dizzying array of software platforms, devices, and applications that promise to guarantee student and faculty success.

In the face of such abundance, it’s important for university leaders to think critically about how specific technologies will be used, and how faculty will be incentivized to embrace them. Such as: what do you want the new technology to accomplish? Will it advance your institution’s mission? And do you have enough support from faculty and staff to implement the technology effectively?

To help university leaders navigate this challenging process, a working group of faculty from six USU institutions came together to identify strategies for advancing the use of technology on campus. In a leadership brief, the faculty working group presented three recommendations for stepping up adoption of new classroom technologies.

Recommendation 1: Incentivize Faculty

The working group found that providing a range of incentives such as awards, stipends, and free access to events encouraged faculty to explore new technologies and fostered a culture of change. Addressing barriers to technology adoption helped motivate faculty as well. For example, providing extra technical support and streamlining approaches for ease of use helped faculty get involved.

Recommendation 2: Engage Faculty in the Technology Decision-Making Process

Every university has its own technology governance structure, but only some of the institutions represented by members of the working group had formal processes in place to gather feedback from faculty. Developing clearly-defined roles, responsibilities, and structures for shared governance may help to engage faculty in making technology-related decisions that will affect their work.

Recommendation 3: Ensure Appropriate Policies and Practices are in Place

It is clear that implementing a new technology in a haphazard way, without sufficient resources invested in the right places, is a recipe for disaster. Institutions that were most successful at promoting technology usage had clear resource commitments and transparent policies for allocating those resources. Questions to consider include:

  • Is there a centralized policy and set of guidelines for technology usage on campus?
  • Is staff support available to help faculty develop online courses?
  • Does the university have a technology mission statement in place that emphasizes commitment to using technology to advance teaching and knowledge creation?

Photo Credit: Florida International University

As an example of successful technology implementation, the working group highlighted Florida International University’s (FIU) Mastery Math Gateways project. The FIU College of Arts and Sciences re-designed college algebra courses to be more “high tech & high touch,” requiring students to use computers to work through math problems but supplementing the technology with peer mentoring support. The results were dramatic: the face-to-face algebra class increased its pass rate from 33% in 2010-2011 to 64% in 2013-2014, and the online algebra course increased its pass rate from 10% to 65% over the same period.

Regardless of the chosen technology or method of implementation, any university can benefit by developing a sound strategy for promoting technology usage on a consistent basis. Developing incentives, creating structures for shared governance, and establishing policies and practices that align with the institution’s mission can help universities achieve transformative and lasting change.

Further reading:

11 Ways to Increase Technology Usage on Campus

Best Practices for Deploying Lecture Capture Campus Wide

To Accelerate Student Success, Eliminate Course Bottlenecks

Imagine you are a senior in college, preparing to register for your final semester of courses. You have worked hard for the past few years and are looking forward to the day when you can walk across the stage, accept your diploma, and begin the next chapter of your life. You’ve looked at the catalog and written down all the courses you’ll need to finish your degree on time. You’re ready.

There’s just one problem: you can’t get in. Only one of the remaining courses needed for your major is being offered this semester. And that required science course that you withdrew from as a sophomore and need to re-take is nearly full – the only open sections conflict with your work schedule.

Frustrated, you sign up for just enough electives to maintain your full-time status. “Next year I’ll graduate,” you think, “if I can afford it.”

Unfortunately, many students find themselves stuck in the same bottlenecks, unable to proceed along the pathway to graduation. “Bottlenecks” are broadly defined as anything that impedes a student’s progress toward degree completion. Students trapped in these choke points waste more than just their time – an extra semester means more tuition to pay and higher debt upon graduation. Course bottlenecks have a disproportionate impact on low-income and nontraditional students, many of whom are balancing work and family responsibilities in addition to school.

What causes bottlenecks?

A working group report from the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities (USU) identified several high-risk conditions that contribute to course bottlenecks. Restrictions on physical space and limited resources were obvious culprits, but scheduling preferences of faculty and students played a large role as well. Introductory “gateway” courses often caused bottlenecks, as did specialized courses that were infrequently or inconsistently offered. One glaring indicator of a problem class is the DFW rate (D/Fail/Withdraw). Courses with a DFW rate above 15 percent were first to fill up, as new enrollments competed with repeat course takers. Overall, just 5 to 10 percent of courses cause the majority of bottlenecks, making this a fixable problem.


How do bottlenecks impact institutions?

Although bottlenecks cause myriad problems for students, they take their toll on the university as well. High failure rates in gateway courses contribute to overall institutional drop-out rates, which impacts the university’s bottom line. Forcing students to take classes they don’t need just to maintain their enrollment or qualify for financial aid is costly for the institution, as it must pay for space and instruction using funds that would be more efficiently invested elsewhere. When faculty are burdened with too many teaching responsibilities, they have less time available to contribute to the university’s other important missions of research and service.


Fortunately, the working group concluded that there are a number of things university leaders can do to reduce or eliminate course bottlenecks on their campuses:

  1.  Lower DFW rates. Some strategies that universities may consider are redesigning courses for active learning, establishing bridge programs to accelerate student academic preparedness, and adding additional support services such as learning assistants and early alert systems.
  2. Fix scheduling conflicts. By proactively budgeting additional funds for high-demand courses, departments can easily add new sections when needed to meet student demand. Providing flexible options such as online, hybrid, or blended courses will give students more opportunities to take a class without disrupting work or family commitments.
  3. Upgrade policies and practices. Policies that limit the number of times a student can re-take a course will relieve some of the pain, and guide struggling students into their advisor’s office to explore new majors and pathways that may be a better fit. Establishing formal partnerships with nearby universities and community colleges can give students more options for taking required courses if those courses are full at their home institutions.

It’s important to remember that bottlenecks are moving targets. Course demand can increase and decrease rapidly in response to demographic shifts, new degree requirements, and changing student enrollment. But by planning ahead and responding quickly to challenges that arise, universities can help more students graduate on time.



Students Helping Students: Using a Peer Approach to Improve College Enrollment and Completion

She looked at me with the common expression of the day—a combination of “I’m lost” and slight panic, “I’m gonna be late!” Truth is, I expected, and even looked forward to seeing and assisting disoriented students. It was the morning of Monday, August 22nd, the first day of the fall term, so I knew our campus would be teeming with new students. Yet something different happened that day: I recognized her! And thankfully, I remembered quickly enough to utter, “I know you. You’re part of College Summit; right?” She nodded, smiled, and sighed with relief. Jasmin and I officially met, and I walked her halfway to her class and pointed her in the right direction.

Just like that, two important parts of my life intersected. I began working at Florida International University (FIU) five years ago, drawn to the diverse student population and the institutional commitment to equity. And I started volunteering with College Summit four years ago, drawn to its dedication to transforming the lives of low-income youth by increasing their college attendance and completion. Like many others, I’ve long been disturbed by inequitable college-going and completion rates in the U.S. So, when an FIU faculty member told me about College Summit, I was immediately drawn to the chance to play a small role in leveling the playing field.


One College Summit initiative, held several times per summer, entails inviting rising high school seniors—called “peer leaders”—to a 4-day, 3-night college prep bootcamp of sorts, held on college campuses across the country. That’s where I had met Jasmin in 2015. Students, volunteers, and College Summit staff stay in dorm rooms and engage in a variety of college prep activities. Volunteers serve as either writing coaches, helping students craft a personal statement, or as college coaches, helping them generate a list of colleges to apply to.

College Summit recognizes that many, if not most, of its peer leaders will be the first in their families to attend college. Many are not yet convinced college is within their reach, that they can afford it, that they deserve to go, that they can be successful there, and that colleges are interested in students like them. In addition to the writing and college coaching, veteran peer leaders and workshop facilitators share candid, inspiring testimonials that start replacing (or at least juxtaposing) students’ apprehensive narratives with empowering, hopeful ones.

This past summer, I learned that College Summit launched a program called PeerForward, in which teams of high school juniors and seniors are prepared to plan activities and workshops to foster a “college-going culture” in their schools. High school students themselves are empowered to help their classmates get to college.


It doesn’t surprise me at all that students excel as peer coaches. We’ve seen it at FIU, home to the country’s largest learning assistant (LA) program. LAs are undergraduates who excelled in certain courses, take a seminar about effective instruction, and then help their fellow students master the course content and competencies. This fall alone, about 300 LAs are working within and outside of our classrooms to help their peers learn. And like College Summit, we recognize that our students’ learning and performance are shaped by complex factors. LAs therefore serve as informal mentors, too, and as evidence to our students that success is attainable.

In my current administrative role, I have fewer and fewer opportunities to work with students one-on-one. At College Summit, I sit beside 7 to 10 rising high school seniors, one at a time, slowly earn a bit of their trust, and hear them tell their stories and describe their aspirations. I’m reminded that while U.S. higher education has made a great deal of progress with respect to equity, we still have a long way to go. When I see Jasmin bustling into the library, I’m reminded that the work we do every day matters a great deal, and my commitment to higher education is renewed.

isis_headshotIsis Artze-Vega, Ed.D. is Assistant Vice President for Teaching & Learning at Florida International University in Miami, Florida








It’s On Us to Help Low-Income Students Succeed in College

Last year, in a New York Times op-ed, college student Brooke Evans shared a story that quickly became a wake-up call for university leaders.

“Without a home and without meals, I felt like an impostor. I was shamefully worrying about food, and shamefully staring at the clock to make it out of class in time to get in line for the local shelter when I should have been giving my undivided attention to the lecturer.”

Now take a step back, and think about how you’d feel if you were Ms. Evans. Everyone who’s been to college has experienced stress at one point or another. Being unable to afford food and housing, however, is hardship on a completely different level.

Unfortunately, Ms. Evans is not an outlier. Survey data show that about 13 percent of college students are homeless, and one in five experience food insecurity. Only 58 percent of students at four-year public institutions graduate within six years. Students are literally dropping out of school for want of food, and many cannot access federal benefits like SNAP because they have difficulty meeting the work requirements while leaving sufficient time to study. In the words of a student at George Mason University: “I spend more time thinking ‘How am I going to make some money so I can go eat?’ and I focus on that when I should be doing homework or studying for a test.”

The Pell grant, intended to help low-income students afford college, is hardly a panacea. According to research from the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, a student’s Pell grant would cover nearly three-quarters of the cost of attending a public four-year university in 1980. Today, it only covers about a third. Consequently, 90 percent of Pell grant recipients end up taking on debt. Many of them never complete a degree or certificate, making their student debt even more difficult to pay off.

If government-backed loans and social programs are failing to keep our students out of poverty, what will? Fortunately, there are some steps that university leaders can take in the short term to mitigate the challenges low-income students face on their campuses.

In my book Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream, I offer a range of solutions that university leaders can pursue, including:

  • Start by listening to students. Behaviors that we often dismiss as character flaws, such as skipping class or failing to read the textbook, can be symptoms of a larger problem like financial stress. Understanding the reasons why students are struggling is a necessary first step to helping them overcome these barriers.
  • Assess students’ basic needs and target those at risk. In addition to academic preparation, meeting basic needs such as food, housing, and sleep are key determinants of students’ readiness to learn.
  • Leverage local and national partners to fill in gaps in services. For example, participating in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will help address food insecurity by allowing students to use their benefits to purchase food on campus. A small number of colleges and universities have taken this step, for example Oregon State University. Other local entities, such as food banks, housing authorities, and community-based clinics can help the university meet students’ basic needs.

We cannot ignore the challenges low-income students face on our campuses. These students need us to take the lead – and soon.  By listening to students, understanding their struggles, and taking short-term actions to address gaps in support services, we can move forward toward a higher education system where intellect and hard work – not ability to pay – is what matters most.


Sara Goldrick-Rab is a professor of higher-­education policy and sociology at Temple University, and founder of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab. Her new book, Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream, is available for Kindle and in hardcover from, and from the University of Chicago Press Books.


3 Wins for Students, Communities, and Public Health

One of the first things students ask when they walk into my office is: “What can I do with a kinesiology major?” When I flip the question around and ask them what they’d like to do with it, the answer isn’t always definitive. Students need to develop an understanding of what is possible, and engage in experiences that will help them identify what they want to do – and how to get there.

That’s one of the reasons why we started 100 Citizens. Established in 2011 in the City of San Fernando’s Recreation Park, 100 Citizens is an exercise program that is free (accessible), sustainable (no external funding), and replicable. Kinesiology students who are educated and skilled in human movement lead community members in group exercise. Many of our students are bilingual and all are capable of teaching a diverse group of participants. The program is also a social experience where members of the community can meet each other and give each other support. We changed our name to 3 Wins Fitness to reflect the program’s outcomes: student benefit, participant fitness, and community health.3wins-action-shot-1

Since then, our impact has grown exponentially. The program has been extended from California State University (CSU), Northridge to three of our sister CSU institutions. We are in the process this academic year of expanding the program throughout the CSU system, with the ultimate goal of developing a business model for replicating the program across the country.

In 2012, we were recognized by First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Campaign, which challenged community organizations to share their programs in an international video competition. We believe that a public health solution to end childhood obesity must begin with the family, and we reach children by helping adults to become healthier role models. Our video submission for 100 Citizens won the popular choice vote and we visited the White House in 2013.

3wins-action-shot-2There were certainly some lessons learned along the way. Initially, we tried to give the idea to universities via a two-day workshop, but found that they had difficulty creating the infrastructure – or, they didn’t build their program to be sustainable. Now, we go directly to the universities and guide the development of the infrastructure to ensure sustainability. As part of our Clinton Global Initiative University Commitment to Action, we are raising funds to build this infrastructure at 20 CSU institutions for just $7,000 each. Once it’s built, there is no external funding required. We have had ours running and growing for 6 years without any external funding, serving over 250 participants each week

Once we establish scalability within the CSU system, it is our intent to create a business to facilitate successful expansion. This will create jobs for our students who have developed leadership and management skills. Hear more from our students and participants…

3 Wins Fitness is affordable, accessible, and sustainable, and has the capacity to improve public health, strengthen communities, and provide students with experiences that will help them succeed. But it’s also backed by scientific evidence. In a co-authored work with colleagues at the RAND Corporation, we concluded that creating a partnership between parks and kinesiology programs is a promising health promotion model. Replicating this type of program could yield important health dividends for communities across the country.  Since this article, we have expanded to 5 additional parks in Northridge and 4 additional universities without external funding – and we plan to keep up the pace. Learn more about the expansion…

Tell your contacts in public health about 3 Wins Fitness. With no state below 20% obesity, it’s a solution that can and must happen now.  The expansion of the program throughout the CSU system is being conducted by our CSU Northridge kinesiology students, who are empowering other students to make a difference in their communities. By taking something small and reproducing it on a larger scale, we can improve public health and well being across the country.

sloySteven Loy, Ph.D. is an exercise physiologist with current emphasis on creating more visibility for the field of Kinesiology in the Public Health arena. He has developed 3 Wins Fitness, a student delivered FREE exercise program for the community, which has been recognized at the White House as an example of what the profession of Kinesiology can do to improve the public’s health, particularly in underserved communities. You can learn more about this program at



The HIGH Program provides the basics to Wayne State students in need

No student should have to choose between going to class and life’s most basic needs of food and shelter. Since we founded the HIGH Program in 2013, this has become our simple mantra that motivates us each day. Unfortunately, it remains a reality for some Wayne State University students.

I discovered this when I first arrived at the university in the summer of 2013, when my husband, M. Roy Wilson, M.D., accepted the honor to be the 12th president of Wayne State. It was brought to my attention at an event, that a graduate student was homeless and living out of her car.    

She knew that soon she’d earn her degree and benefit from a higher education, but she didn’t want to choose between housing and tuition. And she just didn’t have enough for both.

Three years later, the HIGH Program alleviates some of that pressure for students in need. The program provides assistance to students needing help with tuition, housing, text books, transportation and other items that may seem incidental to most of us, but can make the difference between reaching a goal, or not.

We are excited about the momentum the HIGH Program has today. Since our inception in 2013, we’ve received over 300 applications for assistance and more than 130 students have been helped with financial aid support or direct referrals to an alternative funding source.

It’s important to understand who these students are, so let me paint a quick picture. These are individuals who are tenacious, ambitious and driven to succeed. The number one request we receive is for housing assistance. Usually, it’s temporary, just to get a student through a rough financial time.  Like this Wayne State Warrior:

I don’t even know where to begin. Where would I be now if it weren’t for the HIGH Program? Probably crashing on different people’s couches. I was literally on the brink of being evicted with only a couple months left in the semester. The HIGH Program saved me. They covered the two months so that I wouldn’t have to suffer or worry while in school. This also allowed me time to find a job for the summer and the ability to focus on school in the meantime. This program basically changed the course of things for me. I honestly don’t even know where the other road may have taken me, and I’m glad I don’t have to find out. This program is a very beneficial entity to students at Wayne State University. Thank you for everything!

Most Wayne State students seeking assistance from the HIGH Program come from disadvantaged backgrounds and have overcome almost insurmountable obstacles to be at our university. They persevere, knowing that an education is the key that unlocks a lifetime of doors. These students just need a temporary boost to keep them on track to graduate.

And graduate is exactly what they do. In 2014, 94 percent of the students who were provided assistance from the HIGH Program graduated on time. And in 2015, 100 percent of our participating students were on target to graduate.

The HIGH Program is funded by the generosity of individuals and by philanthropic organizations. We recently received a generous grant from the McGregor Fund and thanks to Phillip W. Fisher, Robert L. Ryan, The Baxt Family and the Sean Anderson Foundation, founded by rapper Big Sean, the HIGH Program now has a modest endowment.

But we must do more. Because the need is strong, we are setting our goals “high.”  While continuing to assist students with immediate needs, we intend to aggressively develop a consistent revenue stream and build an endowment of $5 million in order to assist at least 50 students annually.

There is no gift that’s too small, because collectively they make a big difference in a student’s life. If you’d like to contribute to the HIGH Program or if you’re interested in receiving more information on our program, please email us at or visit our website,

jacqueline-wilsonJacqueline Wilson is Wayne State University’s First Lady and Founding Director of the HIGH Program: Helping Individuals Go Higher — a creative initiative to help motivated, homeless students realize their dreams of earning a college degree. Mrs. Wilson first began the program shortly after arriving on campus in 2013 after learning about a student living in her car because she couldn’t afford to pay for tuition and a place to live. Mrs. Wilson believes that no student should have to choose between higher education and survival. Mrs. Jacqueline Wilson is championing the cause of homelessness at Wayne State and in Detroit. She serves on the Board of Directors for Covenant House, a shelter for homeless youth, and is a member of the City of Detroit Homelessness Task Force Committee. Mrs. Wilson’s work in the Detroit community has already distinguished her as a Comcast Newsmaker and one of the Michigan Chronicle’s 2015 Women of Excellence.

Hear what students have to say about the HIGH Program:

Nursing Schools Now Have One Big Toolkit for Improving Admissions

About a year ago, a dean of nursing contacted us with this question: “Your report on holistic admissions in the health professions was great – but how do I actually implement all this on my campus? Are there resources available for nursing?” At the time we didn’t have a good answer, because no such resources existed.

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) and the American Dental Education Association (ADEA) have been providing training programs for their member institutions for a number of years, but holistic review is still a relatively new and underutilized practice in nursing – particularly for undergraduate Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) programs that have limited ability to select their own students. There simply weren’t any resources available at a national level to assist nursing schools in developing a holistic review process.

Until now.

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) just released the first-ever online knowledge base of resources for holistic review in nursing. The knowledge base is populated by multimedia resources developed by AACN, USU/APLU, and the AAMC. These resources were tested and refined during a set of pilot workshops for nursing deans last March, which were supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).

Picture3The knowledge base is full of useful tools, examples, and communications products customized to the unique needs of nursing schools, including:

The knowledge base is publicly available and provided free of charge. Although the resources were designed with nursing in mind, faculty and administrators from any discipline may benefit from the information. AACN members can also sign up to participate in an Online Collaboration Community, where they can ask questions, get advice, and share their successes with peers at other nursing schools.

These resources are just a taste of what is to come. AACN plans to develop in-person training modules, similar to those provided by AAMC, to educate nursing faculty and administrators on their campuses.

Need a primer on holistic review? Check out our introductory video:


Visit for more tools, data, and resources to help your school improve its admission process.

From Setback to Success: APLU’s “Turning Points”

Imagine this scenario at a hypothetical university: it’s the early 2000s, and online learning is an emerging concept growing in popularity. The university’s president comes up with an innovative idea to get ahead of the e-learning curve, trim the university’s budget, and provide more course flexibility for the institution’s many non-traditional students.  The president instructed colleges and departments to reduce the number of classroom sections for introductory gateway courses, and replace them with online sections taught by the same instructors, with identical content.  He theorized this shift would help working students fit introductory courses into their busy schedules.

One year later, to the president’s chagrin, first-year student retention rates had dropped by 7 percent overall – and by 15 percent for first-generation college students.

This wasn’t the outcome he’d been hoping for. But the results proved critically important.

Because of early experimentation, we now know that the way online courses are implemented determines their efficacy. Pedagogy matters. Instructors accustomed to teaching face-to-face need time and guidance to adapt their courses to a new format. Like many of society’s most valuable innovations, best practices for online education weren’t developed all at once, but through an iterative process of testing, refining, and testing again.

Learning from Failure

Achieving success at scale means taking risks and pushing boundaries, and things don’t always work as planned. University leaders want to learn from those failures, but as public leaders they are often reluctant to share what they’ve learned outside their own campuses. Given the magnitude of challenges facing public higher education, finding ways to learn from setbacks and not repeat others’ missteps is of growing importance.

That’s why we need you.

At the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) Annual Meeting on November 13 in Austin, Texas, APLU and the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities (USU) will host a fun and engaging session in which up to five institutions, chosen through a video application, will share their stories of early setbacks that ultimately led to success – and win cash to keep their efforts going.

What is “Turning Points”?

Based on the Fail Festival concept, established by the international development community, Turning Points is a forum for universities to share how a failure or misstep triggered a later success. The Fail Festival model features short, TED-like talks that are authentic and entertaining in nature, outline key failures, why they happened, lessons learned, and how the organization turned them around.


Why Should My University Participate?

Up to five winners will be selected. Each will receive $5,000 and be invited to present their Turning Point at the APLU Annual Meeting on Sunday, November 13, at 1:45 p.m. Travel costs and registration fees will be covered by APLU. In addition, there will be up to 12 honorable mentions selected, each of which will receive $1,000 prizes but will not receive travel support. All of those chosen for the $1,000 or $5,000 prizes will have their videos on display in the annual meeting exhibition hall.

How Can I Apply?

APLU and USU member institutions are eligible to apply. If you are interested in presenting at the APLU Annual Meeting, submit a brief expression of interest to Shari Garmise with the name of the institution, a title, a 1-2 sentence description of the turning point, and the name of the university representative who would present at the APLU Annual Meeting if chosen, along with his/her contact information. Expressions of interest are due by COB, Friday, September 2, 2016. Up to three videos per institution can be accepted with each presenting a separate turning point story, but an expression of interest must be received for each one.

After the letter of intent is submitted, the next step is to develop and submit a 5-15 minute video that will serve as your application. The technical quality of the video is not important, but the quality of the presentation is critical. When the video is final, entrants should provide a link to a Dropbox or similar file sharing site that APLU can use to download the final product. Send the link to Shari Garmise by September 30, 2016.

Are you ready to share your story? If so, jot down a few ideas and send in your expression of interest today. Because failing to learn from each others experiences would be the biggest failure of all. We owe it to our students to keep innovating, learning, and changing to support their success. See you in November!


5 Things Universities Can Do to Engage Faculty in Student Success

As the summer draws to a close, you and your colleagues may be contemplating how you will achieve your goals for the upcoming academic year, and it’s likely that improving student retention, graduation, and success is high on your agenda.

If so, you may want to spend some time thinking about your adjunct faculty.

Here’s why: more than half of faculty at U.S. 4-year colleges and universities are part-time, non-tenure track employees. Furthermore, the percentage of faculty who are part-time is even higher at large, urban-serving institutions. Your students will spend just as much – if not more – time interacting with adjuncts as they will with full professors.  It is therefore essential that your contingent faculty engage with students effectively and provide high-quality teaching that will foster student success.

This is the conclusion of a recent leadership brief produced by a working group of faculty members interested in improving student performance. The working group came together as part of the Collaborating for Change initiative to discuss effective strategies for faculty engagement. They identified three high priority areas:

  • Recognizing and rewarding faculty at all levels;
  • Providing professional development opportunities to all faculty; and
  • Monitoring faculty participation in professional development activities.

Very few institutions extend teaching awards and other incentives to adjunct faculty, even though these instructors reach large numbers of students. Although adjuncts are not excluded from professional development opportunities, the circumstances of their employment present barriers to participation. The most significant are lack of time and scheduling issues, as many adjuncts work at more than one university or have other outside employment. Some university leaders may not be fully aware of these challenges, because they are not collecting data on adjuncts or monitoring their involvement in professional development opportunities.

Data from the Gallup-Purdue Index  show that students are more motivated to pursue their academic goals when they have a caring, supportive professor who gets them excited about learning. Unfortunately, only 14 percent of the 30,000 graduates surveyed said they’d had a professor who personally encouraged them. These findings suggest that ongoing support, recognition, and professional development are essential to engaging all faculty in student success.

Action Steps

The working group of faculty members recommended that universities:

  1. Extend awards structures to include all faculty;
  2. Develop new and creative incentive opportunities;
  3. Invest resources in teaching and learning centers to support all faculty;
  4. Expand professional development opportunities to include all faculty; and
  5. Build capacity to monitor professional development outcomes.

As an example, the University of Central Florida’s Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning developed a program to increase retention and teaching effectiveness of their part-time faculty. The program was designed around the hectic schedules of adjuncts and included an online program as well as in-person workshops and retreats. The university also invests $500,000 each year to support faculty awards and recognition alone – and it spends far more on professional development activities.

Additional Resources


There are a number of ongoing initiatives devoted to faculty development, and resources from these efforts may help universities move forward with the Collaborating for Change recommendations. Achieving the Dream, a non-profit that advocates institutional change at community colleges, just launched a pilot project to “increase adjunct faculty engagement in their campuses’ completion agendas,” and lessons learned may be applicable to 4-year universities as well. The Delphi Project, a partnership with AAC&U and the USC Rossier School of Education, is also a source of data and evidence-based tools for supporting non-tenure track faculty.


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