Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education

Campuses focusing on high impact practices to improve student success

July 06, 2021

WKU students
The Intercultural Student Engagement Center at Western Kentucky University hosts its annual Black History Month Kickoff to celebrate the significance of Black history nationwide. Photo credit: Western Kentucky University.

When Madisonville Community College (MCC) looked to increase retention among low-income students a few years ago, administrators started with a basic need: food.

In 2018, the college launched "Food for Thought," on onsite pantry that distributes goods donated from the campus and local community to those in need. Administrators began advertising the program during first-year orientation, and student groups held fundraisers and volunteered in support of the effort.

Within the first year, Food for Thought proved a success. According to administrators, retention of low-income students at rose from 47% in the 2017-18 academic year to 63% a year later.

"It's important for the students to feel connected to the college," said Cathy Vaughan, dean of student affairs at MCC. "That happens in the classroom, but it also happens in student life events and the other services we provide."

Across Kentucky, programs like Food for Thought are helping students thrive on campus, particularly low-income, first-generation and underrepresented minority students (URM).

Western Kentucky University (WKU), for instance, has established living-learning communities on its campus, which has helped improve URM persistence rates.

In 2017, Jefferson Community & Technical College (JCTC) launched the 15K-Jefferson Rise Together Initiative, a support system for African-American students from local neighborhoods that has helped drive up grades and retention.

Other programs around the state include first-year seminars, service learning opportunities, undergraduate research and capstone experiences. Experts often refer to such programs as "high impact practices" because of their proven results in promoting student success.

"Our campuses are innovating while also improving outcomes in some of the most critical areas," said Dawn Offutt, the director of initiatives for diversity, equity and inclusion at CPE. "Particularly among URM students, we've seen a steep rise in retention and graduation rates over the past several years, and these type of programs have played an important role."

What do researchers say?

Nationally, research has revealed a direct correlation between these types of programs and student progress.

Many of the concepts date back to the 1990s. That's when author and researcher John Tagg was writing about the shift from an instructional model to a learning model in higher education.

In his 2003 book, "The Learning Paradigm College," Tagg explored the concept of "deep learning" – how to analyze problems and apply knowledge in different situations. Tagg argued that deep learning is integrated into one's daily thinking and everyday practice. It involves reflection on the material being taught and can transform the manner in which one thinks and interprets new information.

Later, researcher George Kuh sought to find ways to increase student learning, particularly the kind Tagg had described. Kuh highlighted successful efforts in a 2008 study called "High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter."

Kuh observed that these type of programs had undergone extensive testing in the past and had resulted in proven benefits for college students of various backgrounds.

His own work found that, if students participated in at least two high impact practices, they exhibited higher rates of retention and increased critical thinking.

Exposure and enrichment

In Kentucky, colleges and universities also say that high impact practices are producing results.

JCTC created the Rise Together Initiative to increase educational attainment in the Metro Louisville Area, particularly in neighborhoods with little to no college attainment and low socioeconomic status. Since its launch, the program has served more than 70 students from local neighborhoods, called "Zones of Hope."

According to the program, participates earned a cumulative 2.79 GPA compared to 2.66 for non-participants. The first-year to second-year retention rate for participants also reached 86%, compared to 49% for non-participants.

Organizers say much of the success is due to the program's broad support system. JCTC established Rise Together in partnership with the campus' 15,000 Degrees Steering Committee, comprised of African American entrepreneurs, educators and consultants.

The program provides students with mentors and monthly coaching, access to the college's persistence and graduation fund, enrichment trips, academic support services, preferred employment in the campus multicultural center, first-year experiences and a course in Black leadership. Students also receive $500 to help ease non-academic barriers, and the following semester, JCTC retained every student who had utilized these funds.

Danielle Sims, assistant vice president for student affairs at JCTC, said most of the students have never had access to the types of experiences available through Rise Together. Many have been told they are not college material, she said.

"They are fighting against these negative messages they've heard about their ability to be scholars," Sims said. "What we're up against is changing 18 or 19 plus years of negative messages about who they are."

Communities of learning

Another high-impact approach has focused on learning communities, which encourage integration of learning across courses or similar interest and involve students with "big questions."

That strategy has worked well at WKU.

The campus tapped into its Cynthia and George Nichols II Intercultural Student Engagement Center to promote a culturally inclusive campus environment, cultural competence and awareness, inter-group dialogue, intercultural interaction, and lifelong learning about self and others. WKU dedicated four full-time staff members to provide hands-on recruitment and serve as a retention resource for students in this group.

According to the university, 80.6% of URM students involved in a learning community persisted from fall to spring 2019. That's compared to 53.4% of URM students not involved in a community during the same time period.

"We help them have a sense of belonging and also help them find their voice," said Martha Sales, executive director for the student engagement center and WKU's TRIO programs. "We appreciate them. We appreciate their differences, and we don't try to make them assimilate."

Support in the first year

Other efforts in Kentucky focus on first-year experiences, which are built into a first-year curriculum that brings small groups of students together with faculty or staff on a regular basis.

For example, Bluegrass Community and Technical College (BCTC) has targeted URM retention through a first-year experiences course, FYE 105. Although the course promotes academic, personal and professional success in the college environment – the same information as most other orientation courses – BCTC tailors some lessons to the needs of different groups, including African American, Hispanic and Latino students. For one, it addresses stereotypes and gives students a safe place to express their feelings based on current events.

BCTC also offers tutoring, first-year coordinators and student volunteers that help support student engagement. The coordinators and volunteers help students join campus organizations, such as those designed for first generation or URM students. They also help connect students with internship opportunities through a partnership with the Lexington Chamber of Commerce.

According to the college, those efforts combined have contributed to a rise in retention rates among targeted groups. The first- to second-year retention rate among URM students rose to 75% in fall 2019 compared to 43% in fall 2016, before the program started.

Maintaining momentum

Meanwhile, the Food for Thought program at Madisonville Community College has received high marks from students. In a recent survey of students who use pantry, respondents consistently said that it helped with retention. Some added that it allowed them to reduce stress and better focus on academics.

The campus has raised nearly $40,000 from community members to continue supporting the program. Faculty and staff have also received professional development training to better understand the barriers of students who might participate.

Vaughan, dean of student affairs, said one key to the program's success has been efforts to protect anonymity. Vaughan said some were initially critical of that approach, fearing that some students might abuse the resources.

"Our philosophy is that it doesn't matter," she said. "If we are supporting students, even in a small way, what difference does it really make?"

This article was a collaborative effort between CPE's Communications Team and Deverin Muff of CPE's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Unit.

Last Updated: 7/26/2021