What would university services look like if we could rethink them from the ground up? This question is the foundation of American University's Reinventing the Student Experience (RiSE) project. Over the past few years, RiSE stakeholders have studied the way AU delivers essential services and how to improve them to fit the needs of a changing student population. On March 29 and 30, the program's leaders held town hall discussions to share what they have accomplished thus far and what the future holds.
"Higher education is changing rapidly," said Fanta Aw, vice president of campus life and inclusive excellence. "We really need to understand the students in terms of where they are, and where we're trying to get them to."
To that end, the first years of RiSE have focused on several key areas of improvements:
Sharon Alston, vice provost for undergraduate enrollment, discussed the format and progress of a financial aid pilot that began with students entering AU in fall of 2016.
"If you've ever applied for financial aid, you know that it's very, very complex," Alston said. "There are a lot of forms, a lot of to-dos, and a lot of deadlines."
RiSE's financial aid pilot sought to improve completion rates of three specific steps in the aid process: timely filing of financial aid applications, submission of all the required documents, and fulfillment of satisfactory academic progress (SAP) requirements.
The pilot assigned a financial aid counselor to each student involved. Counselors conducted one-on-one meetings with students and provided personalized communication to help guide them.
The initial findings Alston shared showed that 70 percent of the pilot cohort filed applications by April 1, a full month before the deadline, as compared to 62 percent of the previous cohort. Ninety-five percent completed financial aid requirements by the start of the academic year, as opposed to 90 percent the previous year, and 66 percent of students met the SAP requirements compared to 33 percent the year before.
"The initial findings are encouraging and represent the first step of advancing the university's goal of trying to improve the student experience," Alston said.
The next step will expand the counseling model to include all undergraduates—rather than only first year students—continue one-on-one sessions, and send personalized communications from the financial aid office to students and their parents beginning in the summer.
Undergraduate Experience and Academic Support
Jessica Waters, dean of undergraduate education and vice provost for academic services, provided updates on the Center for Undergraduate Experience.
"What do students need and how do we help them see the connections between the classroom and the academic and what's going on in the residence halls?" Waters said, explaining that her team has been reflecting on how academic support coincides with, and can be integrated into, curriculum changes.
As an example, she described how her team contributes to changes to AU Core. "The director of our writing center sits on the AU Core writing committee, so we can talk about as we change our curriculum, what support do we need to have in place to align services with curricular changes?"
The American University Experience classes (AUx1 and AUx2) also play a key role in impacting students' experiences in and out of the classroom.
"The initial results from our AUx pilots have been pretty astounding," Waters said. "On questions we know lead to retention and thriving, students enrolled in AUx are far above students who are not." This fall, for the first time, the AUx program will include all incoming students.
Hand in hand with AUx is a new first-year advising program, which gives advisers much smaller groups of students to work with. Waters' team is in the process of hiring 25 new advisers, to begin working May 1.
"Our advising was already top notch, but for our incoming class this year, each first-year adviser will have no more than 76 students," Waters said. "To have an advising load like that is almost unheard of." She noted that typically advisers work with 250-plus students. Advisers will also teach their students in the AUx1 classroom, so they will be guaranteed to see the students at least once a week.
Finally, RiSE will address the communication load for incoming students. Currently, 116-plus communications are sent between the time an incoming student makes their deposit and their arrival on campus. Aw said the communications pilot will decrease that load, so students don't "tune out," and will focus on tone and impactful content.
What's up next? A program called CRM Advise will be introduced to all undergraduate advisers to foster more integrated data accessibility.
"This will allow us to share information in a way that we haven't before on this campus, and I think make work more efficient, so we can spend more time with our students," Waters said.
The final—and most significant—piece of the puzzle is culture, which Aw called the "biggest lift," for RiSE.
"A lot of energy has to be spent on culture," she explained. "How do you foster a culture of collaboration, a culture of innovation, and a culture of trust?"
Part of improving culture involves a PMP redesign, shifting focus away from evaluation and assessment of individual goals and performance toward more shared goals and higher purpose motivation, according to Jeffrey Rutenbeck, dean of the School of Communication.
Additionally, programs like Breaking Bread, which provides the opportunity for students, faculty, and staff to meet for lunch, help increase understanding and build relationships across functional roles.
Of course, a big step toward improving culture will be the Plan for Inclusive Excellence, which was introduced earlier this year. Aw, who recently took on a leadership role for inclusive excellence, noted that while much has been done to assess where we are in terms of issues around equity and inclusion, the AU campus still has "quite a bit" of work to do.
One of the first steps of the Plan for Inclusive Excellence was to introduce the Inclusive Excellence Mini-Grants. Recipients of the grants have been identified, and the projects are moving toward the July 30 deadline.
Aw concluded by emphasizing that the key to both RiSE and the Plan for Inclusive Excellence moving forward will be to work closely to achieve the goals of all associated programs and initiatives.
"If anything, we very much believe that what it will take to solve the RiSE issues is what it will take to solve the inclusion and equity issues," Aw said. "It is about culture, it is about people, it is about climate. It really is about a systemic, holistic approach."