How AACRAO’s supporting CCA’s Purpose First initiative

College access is critical, but what happens once students get on campus? Complete College America (CCA) has begun to shine a light on the complementary importance of student success, retention and completion through their work on “Game Changers” such as Guided Pathways to Success (GPS). With the support of a grant from Strada Education Network, CCA has established the Purpose First: Informed Choice of Major project, as a component of GPS, to help institutions explore how students can be assisted in making informed, meaningful choices about their area of study.

“CCA has been an advocate of guided pathways and the core components of guided pathways like informed choice, meta-majors, proactive advising, and technology processes that work for students,”  said Dhanfu Elston, CCA’s Vice President of Strategy, Guided Pathways and Purpose First. Purpose-driven strategies that help students include personal assessment, traditional academic assessment, and using of career market data so students are aware of the labor market for potential careers, among others.

“When you think about major choice, those individuals most likely to end up with a major without thought or understanding of associated careers are first generation students, low income students, and students of color. Our hope is that these processes will not just make for more effective institutions but will allow for more students to be exposed to what they can truly do with majors that are aligned with their interests and passions,” Elston said. “The larger goal of CCA and true spirit of Purpose First is to increase the number of graduates and ensure that we close achievement gaps for the most underrepresented student populations to create a more equitable society.”

Institutional members, organizational partners

The Purpose First demonstration project includes 5 members of the CCA Alliance: New Hampshire, Tennessee, Virginia, Houston, and Hawaii. Each of the selected Alliance members identified, at least, five institutions that were well-situated and eager to launch these new purpose-driven strategies and processes for the fall 2017 cohort. Of course, purpose-centered conversations aren’t new to higher education, and CCA reached out to organizations whose members have been working on these issues.

“We knew there were organizations in higher ed doing this work, and we needed to ensure we were talking to and involving the right people, like the members of AACRAO, NACADA: The Global Advising Community, National Association of Colleges and Employers and National Career Development Association,” he said. “After preliminary conversations we knew these would be extremely powerful partners for identifying some of the best practices and ideal principles for creating purpose-driven strategies for institutions.”

“We’re excited AACRAO has decided to join us, not only in developing best practice and principles, but also serving as content experts as we work on this demonstration project,” Dhanfu said.

As part of the project, each participating Alliance member joins an annual national convening which includes representatives from each participating institution. In addition, each member holds a series of in-state convenings--first in the spring of 2017 and then a follow up set in the fall of 2017--to bring the teams from participating institutions together to share where they are, what they’re learning, and how to improve.

AACRAO in Hawaii: Bringing SEM to Purpose First

At these in-state convenings, participants receive guidance from partner organizations, including AACRAO. For example, the Hawaii convening in April 2017 brought together two- and four-year institutions to talk about the progress they were making toward the fall launch.

Hawaii had already done great work at the secondary level mapping out learning outcomes and career activities. The Purpose First project is a tool to help build the bridge between that work and developing an intentional transition into higher education.

“When we met with them a year ago, they were really thinking about this as an advising and career services issue, and AACRAO was saying if you really want to impact the student in a way that will carry across the four years, you have to make sure that the whole institution is adopting the Purpose First message and that it becomes a piece of the institution’s strategic enrollment plan,” said AACRAO Deputy Director Melanie Gottlieb. “SEM is an excellent fit with the Purpose First program and philosophy because the SEM framework can help create a purpose-driven culture across an institution. Students who have a purpose have a better chance of degree completion.”

Tara Sprehe, AACRAO Consultant and Dean, Academic Foundations and Connections, Clackamas Community College, joined the Hawaii convening to share insights from her institution’s experiences with purpose-driven strategies.

“The goal is to help students identify or declare their program of study or area of interest much earlier in their college career,” Sprehe said.

“For example, at community colleges in Oregon we’re talking about guided pathways, identifying meta-majors, and so on -- realigning our program areas under these larger headings,” Sprehe said. “For example, a student can be interested in business, social science, or manufacturing, and take a set of courses that would count toward that meta-major without having to decide on a specific major right away. Eventually we’ll have about seven meta-majors for students to choose from.”

However, as the Hawaii system was having these conversations, they weren’t including many key stakeholders in SEM. Sprehe’s presentation aimed to broaden the conversation.

Sprehe emphasized that institutions needed to expand their Purpose First implementation beyond just academic advising to include admissions and recruitment, enrollment processes, CRM, and targeted marketing and recruitment campaigns. SEM success requires involvement across campus -- faculty, department chairs, academic and career advisors, housing, orientation, and registrars.

“SEM planning is ongoing. It isn’t a recruitment plan, a marketing/branding plan, or a communications strategy -- it’s all of those things, and more,” Sprehe said. “It includes developing strategies, establishing enrollment goals, and understanding the internal and external forces that influence direction of the institution, as well as having a data-rich environment to inform those decisions.”

Ultimately, the goal is for the Alliance members like Hawaii to develop a set of best practices in purpose-driven onboarding that can be scaled to help students make a choice for an appropriate academic pathway.

Full circle: The future of Purpose First and the GPS Seal of Approval

Each institution involved in the demonstration project is pursuing a variety of interventions to help students make major and career decisions. Some are looking into overlaps between career and academic advising, some are embedding career advising into first year courses, some are looking at admissions and registration processes that lead to meta-majors.

“As we continue to build upon the success of guided pathways strategies, we expect to see changes in everything from more intentional sharing of labor market information during onboarding, required personal and academic assessments, and admissions applications where majors are broken into meta-majors for easier connection to career pathways,” Elston said.

The project will end next summer, and CCA will put together a formal publication highlighting exemplar practices and lessons learned to share with the member organizations, including AACRAO, as well as the larger CCA Alliance, which includes 42 states, regions, and consortia. AACRAO will help to develop that set of best practices.

“What we learn with this project will be shared with CCA’s larger national network,” Elston said. “Our expectation is that more states and institutions will begin to embed these student-focused, purpose-driven practices into their completion strategies.”

In addition to the work on Purpose First, AACRAO has also agreed to serve as a committee member for CCA’s  2017 GPS Direct Seal of Approval, a program designed to recognize software tools that most effectively promote college completion through adherence to the essential components of the organization’s GPS initiative. The 2017 program will expand the award requirements for Guided Pathways and include supports for Informed Choice and Proactive Advising, helping students to make the right major decision.

“AACRAO will sit on the committee that reviews this year’s applicants and will be involved in the selection process,” Elston said. “That brings everything full circle: Purpose First is encouraging institutions to think about new approaches to helping students make academic and career decisions, while institutions frequently ask ‘what technology can help us do that?’ We plan to amplify those technology vendors that can assist institutions in becoming more efficient toward that goal.”