Peer Review

Faculty and Staff Engagement: A Core Component of Student Success

At the heart of every higher education institution are the students, the faculty, and the staff. Therefore, every effort to improve students’ experiences on campus and academic outcomes must include the voices of students, as well as leadership from and intensive engagement with faculty and staff.

Over the last eleven years, Achieving the Dream has led a network of more than 200 community colleges working to reshape institutional cultures so that the policies, practices, and culture of community colleges are optimized to promote and support student success. Our work, like that of AAC&U’s Roadmap project, is designed to help institutions develop pathways to simplify their students’ journeys, to break down siloes between departments and campuses, to use data to inform every decision, and to engage students in their own learning experience. Our experience has taught us that faculty and staff are the key to successful cultural and organizational change and that the most sustainable and impactful change comes when they are not only engaged but also are the drivers of the work.

Common Hallmarks of Achieving the Dream Colleges

While each college in our network approaches its student success work differently, based on the specific contexts of their institutions and students, there are common goals and strategies among all colleges in the network. The participating colleges

  • Develop and commit to a strong common vision. Leadership, faculty, and staff at all levels and across all functional areas of the college commit to a common vision for student success and a set of priorities for improving student outcomes. They work together to operationalize those priorities and maintain a focus on the students they serve.
  • Align all their student success efforts under this vision. One of the greatest challenges to engagement is initiative fatigue. Great colleges know that aligning and integrating their student success strategies can help create time and resource efficiencies, reduce the likelihood of duplicated effort, and ensure all college personnel and stakeholders can see how each initiative works together to achieve the institution’s goals.
  • Build a culture of evidence and inquiry that permeates their institution. They continuously examine the students’ experiences, progression, and outcomes, and these analyses inform the creation, implementation, and evaluation of their strategy to enhance the student experience and increase outcomes. Equally important, all data are disaggregated so colleges have a clear understanding of how they can better support traditionally underserved and underrepresented student populations and can closely monitor their progress along pathways.
  • Create an environment that encourages and supports faculty and staff to generate solutions and lead the change process. The most successful and sustainable initiatives are often those that are driven by faculty and staff who work with the students every day.
  • Understand the value and power of effective and regular communication. They use every opportunity to tell their institution’s story and the stories of their students to engage, generate buy-in, and inspire leaders across the campus.
  • Support the whole student. While it’s important to address the academic barriers that impede student success, it’s also important to focus on removing the other barriers—social, financial, etc.—that prevent students from completing a postsecondary credential.
  • Work to make the path to completion clear and accessible. Increasingly, Achieving the Dream colleges are building guided pathways that provide clear routes for students to meet their academic and career goals. These pathways begin with preparation for college and lead to enrollment and early advising, to completion, and to the workforce or further study.

Achieving the Dream colleges track the impact of their reform efforts on student outcomes through several measures—persistence from term to term and year to year, credential attainment, completion of gateway courses, completion of courses with a “C” or better, and completion of developmental education courses. At the core of every college that shows a significant upward trend on any or all of these measures are strong, dedicated, and empowered faculty and staff leading the charge for their students.

Obstacles to Broadly and Deeply Engaging Faculty and Staff

There are a host of challenges embedded within institutional structures and processes that can impede a college’s efforts to support and promote the true engagement of faculty and staff in efforts to improve student outcomes. Some of these challenges are outlined below.

  • While the national focus on improving student success is exciting, necessary, and urgent, colleges are often overly ambitious or hasty in selecting their student success efforts, and some colleges take on too many initiatives, execute poor project planning, or move forward projects that do not fit the needs and culture of the institution. This leaves faculty and staff overwhelmed and inured by the constant addition of new responsibilities and shifting priorities. Some colleges are working to alleviate the resulting “initiative fatigue” by encouraging faculty and staff to lead change initiatives, maintaining clear and regular communication, and tying all strategies together into themes that relate to the college’s strategic goals.
  • Top-down leadership models can imply that faculty and staff input and expertise are not valued. Similarly, student success interventions are often implemented without sufficient communication to faculty and staff about how they connect to their work and why they are valuable for their students.
  • Budget cuts and deficits often result in faculty and staff being asked to do more with fewer resources. The pressure to meet the demands of the job leaves little room for faculty and staff to take on additional work.
  • The majority of faculty members are in part-time adjunct positions. This often means they have multiple jobs at different colleges and are faced with competing priorities, low pay and workplace support, and no guarantee that they will be hired at the same college the next semester. These conditions not only result in detachment from the college’s vision and priorities, they also prevent those who are eager to get involved from doing so.
  • The time and resources required of faculty and staff in designing and implementing student success strategies are not always recognized by or aligned within compensation, tenure, and promotion structures.
  • A strong faculty governance structure can help accelerate and amplify the success of a particular intervention or, on the flip side, impede the implementation of said intervention.
  • Silos between departments limit collaboration and the ability to build infrastructures to implement sustainable interventions.

The PRESS for Completion Initiative

Between 2012 and 2015, Achieving the Dream worked with fifteen community colleges to better understand the challenges and barriers to deep and broad student engagement and identify effective strategies to overcome them. Through the PRESS (persistence, retention, and student success) for Completion initiative (funded by the Walmart Foundation), each college identified an existing student success initiative that would be greatly enhanced by the involvement of more faculty and staff. PRESS colleges then developed, executed, and evaluated engagement strategies with significant technical assistance support from Achieving the Dream Leadership Coaches (current and former community college senior leaders) and through regular peer-learning convenings.

Over the course of the grant, PRESS colleges set baseline measures for their campuses’ faculty and staff engagement, leveraged large meetings (convocations or whole-college summits) to broadly engage faculty and staff in their student success agendas, and created cross-college working groups to examine student outcomes, identify strategies to improve the outcomes, and evaluate the impact of the strategies.

Alamo Colleges’ Faculty and Staff Engagement Strategies and Results

The Alamo Colleges were part of the PRESS for Completion Initiative and have also participated in AAC&U’s Roadmap project, where they focused on challenges experienced in rolling out various student success initiatives under the umbrella of the MyMAP framework (the colleges’ work toward building clear academic program maps): AlamoADVISE (a comprehensive advising system), the Refresher Courses program (a redesign of the colleges’ developmental education and adult basic education programs), and AlamoINSTITUTES (the colleges have channeled all courses and programs into six career pathways). Specific to the PRESS work, the colleges revamped and built out a faculty development program for both full-time and adjunct faculty to ensure that faculty are prepared to lead and support the student success initiatives. Both the AAC&U’s Roadmap project and Achieving the Dream’s PRESS initiative have given the Alamo Colleges opportunity to work through many barriers—institutional, financial, personnel—to develop action plans that will advance the goal of engaging faculty and staff as strategic allies who commit to supporting and enhancing these initiatives. The challenge for Alamo Colleges as they have redesigned the student experience has been balancing the engagement of faculty and staff in the redesign while faculty and staff also have to function in the current academic pathways models. At times it has felt like the colleges are building the plane while moving down the runway.

Thus, Alamo Colleges’ PRESS work focused on revamping faculty job descriptions and evaluations (for both full- and part-time faculty) and creating a faculty development program that aligned to the competency areas in the job descriptions and the evaluations and to the knowledge and skills needed to execute the colleges’ student success initiatives. The updated faculty teaching descriptions reflected a much stronger focus on the competencies needed for faculty to be effective educators. Based on the competency areas laid out in the new faculty job description, the colleges are piloting a faculty evaluation tool. The expectation is that the new evaluation tool will be implemented across all the colleges in the 2015–2016 academic year.

To support faculty in meeting expectations laid out in the new job descriptions and evaluations and to increase and accelerate the execution of the colleges’ primary student success initiatives, the colleges invested in building out the faculty professional development program. Professional development planning across the colleges began in 2010 when the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board awarded a Developmental Education (DE) Demonstration grant to the Alamo Colleges. As part of a continuing focus on increasing success in DE courses, the colleges’ Achieving the Dream director worked with the colleges’ discipline leadership to develop faculty development sessions for all math, reading, and writing faculty to address specific changes in the DE curriculum. This initiative provided professional development across the colleges and included full-time and part-time faculty for the first time. As the student success initiatives have expanded and the new job descriptions and evaluation models have been implemented, the professional development program now has a staff, including faculty, dedicated to faculty professional development.

The colleges’ investment in faculty development is paying dividends in their efforts to increase faculty leadership and engagement in its student success initiatives in the following programs:

  • The AlamoPREP program is designed for adult basic education students. Faculty discussions have resulted in a focus on developing contextualized, discipline-specific courses to be offered alongside a required refresher (DE) course and career advising. Full-time and part-time faculty in these disciplines have participated in ongoing faculty professional development training sessions to learn about the Refresher program and the associated advising protocols.
  • The AlamoINSTITUTES are innovative and evidence-based academic and career pathways in the colleges. All degrees and certificates have been placed in one of six academic or career pathways. Discussions with the independent school districts within the Alamo Colleges’ service area and the local four-year colleges and universities have been initiated to develop seamless pathways beginning with a student’s endorsement selection in the ninth grade in high school on through a program at the Alamo Colleges to a baccalaureate degree or directly into the workforce—all based on a career goal. Academic maps are being developed with the program requirements at the four-year institutions. Faculty teams at the colleges will develop academic maps based on the program requirements at the four-year institutions.
  • Implementation of AlamoADVISE began in fall 2014 when each student was assigned a certified academic advisor from their first to final semester. Advisors case manage students and work in teams to facilitate support. Student success data analysts provide a continuous flow of key advising information to facilitate the work of the advising teams at each college.
  • As part of AlamoADVISE, advisors in each institute are assisting students in determining their career pathway and will be using the AlamoINSTITUTES and academic maps with potential fall 2016 entering students. A faculty mentor program is currently in development, with implementation planned in spring 2016. Faculty in disciplines and programs within each institute will work in tandem with advisors of students who have earned thirty college-level semester hours to support students’ progress through their selected Institute. Training for the faculty will be included in the faculty professional development program.

PRESS for Completion Results and Lessons Learned

As the Alamo Colleges example shows, investing in faculty and staff development leads to improved faculty and staff leadership of and participation in colleges’ student success work. Achieving the Dream tracked faculty and staff engagement across all fifteen PRESS colleges and saw a marked increase in their engagement in the colleges’ student success initiatives over the course of the grant (see table 1 below).

Table 1. Campus Participation in Cross-College Groups by Position Type (duplicated), 2012–2013 and 2013–2014

Full-Time Faculty

Adjunct Faculty

Student Services Staff

Prior to Grant
Year 1
Year 2
Prior to Grant
Year 1
Year 2
Prior to Grant
Year 1
Year 2

Below are the key lessons learned by the fifteen colleges through their participation in the Achieving the Dream PRESS for Completion initiative.

  • Clarify expectations and project design up-front. Any campus discussion about beginning a new project or initiative should include faculty early on in its development and planning. This can be accomplished by developing a roadmap that outlines objectives and how they will be accomplished and should include pertinent items such as stakeholders, team members, design principles, expected outcomes, and timeline. This plan should be shared, modified, and referenced regularly to remind faculty of the desired goal.
  • Make the work meaningful for faculty. Faculty and staff want to know that what is being asked of them will actually make a difference and, if so, for whom and in what way. Particularly for faculty, it is important to connect the work at the most important level—in the classroom.
  • Identify champions and get support. Start by identifying faculty members who are early adopters—those who are already invested in the work to be done and can champion the work. But it is important to consider that engaging only with faculty who are motivated to lead change does not provide the depth of reform that you have when the “fence sitters” also embrace the project.
  • Ensure there is two-way communication. Effective communication from the very onset of the project will make it easier for faculty and staff to support the initiative. Ensure that their voices are heard as equals among peers.
  • Use and share data. Data can be a powerful tool in telling an institution’s story and documenting need for improvement. Invest in institutional research capacity to not only collect data, but also to train faculty and staff to make meaning from the data. Set the tone for the use of data to be informative, not punitive.
  • Be conscious of workloads and scheduling. When seeking widespread participation, give faculty and staff options and degrees to which they can be involved. If they see that there are different levels of commitment and the work is meaningful, they are more likely to participate. Also ensure that faculty and staff members have opportunities to participate that fit within their work schedules, and allow them the flexibility to attend.
  • Offer incentives. When possible, provide participating faculty and staff with something of value for engagement and participation. Incentives such as stipends, travel funds, or release time can go a long way in building support and fostering participation.

Higher education institutions that want to significantly increase their student success outcomes must design their policies, practices, and organizational culture to promote the engagement and leadership of their faculty and staff. Colleges that invest in designing engagement and empowerment strategies that leverage the talent and dedication of faculty and staff are likely to produce more meaningful and sustainable results. As Achieving the Dream continues to lead and support community colleges in building student-centered cultures that lead to improved student outcomes, the lessons from the PRESS for Completion initiative have informed our work to support and promote faculty and staff leadership of student success efforts.


Henderson, Carrie E., and Lawton, Julia, eds. 2015. Engaging Faculty and Staff in the Student Success Agenda: Case Studies from the Walmart PRESS for Completion Grant Program. Silver Spring, MD: Achieving the Dream.

Mary Harrill, senior director, higher education accreditation and program support, National Association for the Education of Young Children; former associate director of programs and policy, Achieving the Dream; Julia A. Lawton, assistant director of data, technology, and new college experience, Achieving the Dream; and Jo-Carol Fabianke, vice chancellor of academic success, Alamo Colleges

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