WMU gets $3.2 million to build culture of degree completion, success

Contact: Cheryl Roland
Dr. Andrea Beach


KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Western Michigan University will receive more than $3.2 million from the U.S. Department of Education to use the unique opportunities afforded by the existence of the Kalamazoo Promise to build an institutional culture focused on increased access and degree completion for underrepresented, underprepared or low-income students.

The new grant is one of a small number of awards, and the only one made in Michigan, announced Sept. 30 by the DOE and meant to create and validate through ongoing research, student success programs that can tackle the problem of low rates of degree completion. The goal is to create programs that other universities can adopt, knowing there is sound research data behind the strategies embraced and replicated.

"After receiving nearly 500 applications from around the country, we're excited to announce Western Michigan University will receive a First in the World grant, funded for the first time this year," said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. "Each grantee demonstrated a high-quality, creative and sound approach to expand college access and improve student outcomes. We are confident these projects will have a positive impact on increasing access and completion and help us reach President Obama's 2020 goal, to once again have the highest share of college graduates in the world."

Kalamazoo Promise

For WMU, the four-year project will focus on building a campuswide culture that uses mentoring relationships for first-year students to transform WMU's culture and structures to be more supportive of student persistence. The work will be done with the input of students for whom the problem of affordability has been largely eliminated—Kalamazoo Promise students. The Promise is a nine-year-old initiative that provides up to four years' tuition and fees at any Michigan public university or one of 15 private colleges for students who graduate from Kalamazoo Public Schools.

"Western Michigan University is in a unique position to help find what additional barriers to success exist for students, once the issue of affordability is removed from the mix," says WMU President John M. Dunn. "About a third of students attending college through the Kalamazoo Promise choose WMU, and we have both a desire and a responsibility to find and change those things within our culture that still make it difficult for students to earn a degree, reach their full potential and succeed. What we learn will benefit all of our students."

Two strategies

Dr. Andrea Beach, professor of higher education leadership and director of faculty development at WMU, will co-direct the effort with Dr. Charles Henderson, a professor with a joint appointment in WMU's Department of Physics and its Mallinson Institute for Science Education. Together, the pair recently launched the Center for Research on Instructional Change in Postsecondary Education.

Dr. Charles Henderson


Beach says the project will use one of two strategies with groups of first-year students, and the project team will measure the relative outcomes. The first strategy involves connecting students to professional opportunities in the region by placing them with mentors from the local business community who can provide opportunities for career exploration and course content relevancy as well as a relationship with someone vested in their academic career.

The second approach will be to build mentoring relationships through professional learning communities on campus comprised of the students plus faculty, staff and administrators and focused on identifying and addressing barriers to and supports for student success. Incoming Promise students and others will be invited to be part of the project and will be randomly assigned to one of the two groups. Both approaches will fall within the framework of WMU's First Year Seminar offerings, so that students receive academic credit for their experiences. 

The approach for the new work, says Beach, "is a different from 'business as usual' or even 'research as usual' and will take a great deal of institutional work," but both Beach and Henderson point to the campuswide input they received in putting the plan together as evidence of the widespread and interdisciplinary nature of the interest faculty and staff have in the work. The 40 members of the original planning group also showed commitment to rigorous analysis and research as the project moves forward.

"We had to set this up as an experiment that could measure institutional change and evaluate that change as we move ahead," says Henderson. "This is about creating innovation that is grounded in sound research and will also give us the opportunity to advance theory in the area of institutional transformation."

Measuring success

Success at the end of the four-year effort, Beach says, "would mean a move toward transformation of the culture at WMU that is systematic and measurable, and transferable to other universities."

"This is about connecting all the disparate initiatives aimed at student success that every institution has and turning them into one strong and successful effort," Beach says. "The university itself needs to change. Actualizing student success requires integrated institutional transformation involving the whole campus."

Additional principals on the effort will be Dr. Martha Warfield, vice president for diversity and inclusion, who will serve as the project's senior advisor, and Dr. Stephen Magura, director of WMU's Evaluation Center, who will serve as director of evaluation and oversee the overall scientific conduct of the effort.

To read the Department of Education announcement, visit http://1.usa.gov/1ByWFYO.

For more news, arts and events, visit wmich.edu/news.