Lisa Chapman: Helping Students Make Informed Decisions

Helping students make informed decisions is critical to their academic and career success. We know they cannot afford to invest time and money in coursework that does not lead to their intended goal.  We also know that students do not typically enter our doors already knowing their best starting point and their best pathway. For students to make informed decisions about their educational/career pathway, we need to structure our services and our organization with an intentional focus on our entry engagement built around identifying students’ immediate and ultimate goals and with an understanding and appreciation for everything we offer. These structures should support appropriate selection of the most effective pathway through us to goal completion.

An informed decision begins with an awareness of career opportunities both locally and across the state. When students do make informed decisions, they do so not only with an awareness of the opportunities but also with an understanding of what to expect in their chosen career. They use this information to enroll in the educational pathway that targets their intended career, including credentialing for entry-level employment as well as credentialing required for advancement.

When students enroll in the pathway using on/off ramps that best meet their individual needs, they can begin at a point that acknowledges their past learning, complete the portion of the pathway that allows them to enter the career based on their immediate needs, and potentially re-enter the pathway for additional credentialing as their career goals mature. Whether the opportunity is supported through short-term education/training, customized training for a specific employer, literacy education, or an academic pathway including a degree, the educational strategy is based upon students’ needs and goals.

Since student informed decision making begins with timely, accurate, and accessible knowledge of career opportunities, it is important to ensure that communities are intentional and inclusive in their communication of the opportunities. We can’t start too early or communicate this information too broadly. That means that we build career awareness programming throughout K-12 learning and also ensure its accessibility to adult learners entering or re-entering secondary and post-secondary education.

This deliberate approach requires engagement of all community workforce development partners, not just one entity. An accurate and transparent focus on current and projected opportunities, what those opportunities afford, and the required preparation for those opportunities must be available early in a student’s decision-making.

Since NC community colleges offer a multitude of educational strategies, the local college should be an obvious portal to the right educational pathway for each student. However, this simply is not the case. We often lament the lack of community awareness of all that our community colleges do and offer. People only know us for the one readily available service in which they have been engaged or to which they have been exposed, or they only think of postsecondary education as they personally experienced it (which may not have included community college exposure), and therefore, the collective does not realize all we do.

So, we rely on the college family to serve as ambassadors. This seems like a reasonable community approach, but there is more to being an impactful ambassador than simply being a knowledgeable college employee or advocate. The impactful college ambassador must not only “know” what the college provides, the impactful ambassador must value all the college provides and value what it means to be embedded in the fabric of the community. Sometimes our educational silos at our colleges interfere with the development of impactful ambassadors. Organization based on funding streams, mode of delivery, and facilitated institutional procedures has led not only to structural silos, but more significantly to cultural silos.

The “Father of the North Carolina Community College System,” Dr. W. Dallas Herring stated,

The only valid philosophy for North Carolina is the philosophy of total education; a belief in the incomparable worth of all human beings, whose claims upon the state are equal before the law and equal before the bar of public opinion; whose talents (however great or however limited or however different from the traditional) the state needs and must develop to the fullest possible degree . . . We must take people where they are and carry them as far as they can go within the assigned functions of the system.

If we believe in this philosophy of “total education,” we must understand and value all opportunities our colleges provide—with no one educational opportunity being more important than any other. We are one college, serving the community. Again, whether the opportunity is supported best through short-term education/training, customized training for a specific employer, literacy education, or an academic pathway including a degree, the value of the opportunity is based upon student goals and community needs.

Unfortunately, some of our organizational structures and policies influence both understanding and value. We must bridge the silos that have developed over 50+ years of doing business, which involves more than just a change in organizational structure or movement of people to different offices. We must shift our culture to focus on student success first and emphasize informed decision-making based on student goals and community needs.

This shift in culture can require the arbitration of concerns over whose budget is being impacted, whose faculty may be impacted, who has control of the facilities (and scheduling), or even who has ownership of equipment. However, simply overriding all previous decision-making is not a sustainable approach to supporting a student success first focus.

A leader determined to redesign an organization that is focused on student success needs to understand what exists, why it exists, and how potential changes impact current processes. These seem obvious, but part of the obvious that is easily overlooked in today’s pressures on higher education student success. While the what, why, and how may seem obvious, they are unique to each institution. Therefore, leading effective institution culture shift includes more than simple recognition of the cultural silos. It requires an understanding of those silos and an appreciation of their strengths. This understanding and appreciation can provide the opportunity to identify cultural silo barriers to student success and then to ultimately implement institution-developed strategies that support students making informed decisions.

There is clearly more to student success than students making informed decisions, but we know that strategies such as clarifying paths and providing integrated, targeted supports when they are most effective are much more impactful for students who get the right start. While we can and should alter our organizational structure to facilitate communication among our instructional pathways and should also address funding inequities that favor selected instructional pathways, we need to do more.

If we want to take “people where they are and carry them as far as they can go,” we cannot overlook the importance of the college family’s appreciation for why we offer varied educational opportunities. We also need an understanding of when and why each might be the most effective starting point for a student. We don’t just need others to value all we do, we need to value all we do.

Dr. Lisa Chapman is Senior Vice President/ Chief Academic Officer at the North Carolina Community College System (Raleigh, NC).

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