Making Real Change Happen: Magic? No, a Lot of Hard Work
By Marie Jacinto
Do you sometimes wonder how real change happens? Especially when people start talking about “Big Ideas” such as Equity and Inclusion. Sure, writers like Malcolm Gladwell of “The Tipping Point” fame and “Freakonomics” authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner have built careers writing about societal change, but how about effecting change within your own university?
UHD is on target to do just that — to make real change happen in retention and graduation rates. How? By moving the needle on first-year retention rates by 12 points over five years from the current 67% to 79%, which is the average for four-year, public Texas universities. An even more ambitious goal at UHD is to raise six-year graduation rates to 58% from the current 30% by 2027.
Of course, setting goals is one thing. Anyone who has ever tried to lose weight or learn how to play the piano or achieve any difficult goal knows that reaching that goal is only possible by having a solid plan. That’s why President Loren J. Blanchard set about listening to students when he first arrived at UHD and then worked with a host of faculty and staff to create the 2022-2027 Strategic Plan: A New Paradigm.
The first goal of the strategic plan as well as the number one priority of the University is Enhancing Student Success. That can sound very lofty as a concept, but what does “enhancing student success” mean on an individual basis? UHD Provost Deborah Bordelon took this question to heart, overseeing a major shift in how UHD helps students navigate their educational journeys. While students previously interacted with a number of different advisors, Bordelon instituted a new approach. Now, UHD Academic Success Coordinators follow a given cohort of students throughout their academic careers at UHD, providing many, many points of contact along the way.
“This key organizational change not only supports students in their decisions on classes, but also enables Academic Success Coordinators to provide information on overcoming life challenges—like food and housing insecurities—for students’ overall well-being,” states Provost Bordelon. “We also understand the needs of first-year, first-generation students may be very different from those of transfer students, and we want to help manage those transitions in supportive, mindful ways.”
This case management approach to advisement is just the first step in affecting real change. And now to let the genie out of the bottle … change can happen by setting goals, having a plan, and methodically implementing that plan. But the results are much more assured when a third party takes a critical look at what you’re doing; analyzes your data in a substantial way; and provides informed recommendations from years of experience. Voilà! That’s exactly what happened after UHD was included in the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s (THECB) Implementation Cohort alongside Sam Houston State University, Midwestern State University, and Tarleton State University.
The THECB solicited the help of the National Institute for Student Success (NISS). Over the summer of 2022, UHD began a three-month diagnostic phase filled with data collection, interviews, and surveys. By that point, UHD’s strategic plan was firmly in place, and NISS then offered strategies relative to the strategic plan, including the following recommendations to move the needle on Student Success:
- Coordinate Academic Advising;
- Provide consistent academic support and reduce D or F grades, withdrawals, and incompletes of gateway courses;
- Improve systematic first-year support; and
- Increase support of student financial wellness.
“We were selected by the THECB to be a part of the Implementation Cohort because of our strong commitment to working aggressively to improve retention and graduation rates to meet the statewide rates,” stated President Blanchard. “We remain sensitive to first-generation students and how to provide for them. We especially want to enhance the learning environment surrounding gateway or ‘bottleneck courses,’ namely mathematics, English, and history.” Additionally, the University wants to ensure that each student has their own degree map, and that each degree is one of value to empower them for the rest of their lives.
Blanchard explains that NISS took 20 years’ worth of UHD data and looked for trends across the student body, across courses, and across other categories — to deeply analyze the data to inform decision-making in creating the right strategies to enhance student success. Now with the recommendations in place, UHD is set to implement those changes. “Understanding the methodology to change outcomes puts us in a position to make the difference we seek. In accomplishing our goals, we will set the example nationally for campuses like ours — diverse, urban, higher education enterprises — in improving retention and graduation rates and seeing our graduates prosper personally, professionally, and civically.”
And that’s how real change happens.
The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.
U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.