The broken record of broken transfer seems to be on constant repeat in the higher education sector. Going back decades, many states, systems and institutions have enacted sweeping policy changes and invested significant resources in supporting transfer student success. Yet student outcomes have shown little improvement and appear to have even regressed during the pandemic. The question is not whether transfer remains a problem, but why it persists to such a degree despite extensive efforts to fix it.
One key barrier to improving outcomes involves the way that higher education institutions typically identify and implement solutions, often derided by those working in the trenches as “solutionitis.” While well intentioned, too often change efforts proceed along the following sequence: a problem is identified, little or no data are collected to fully understand the complexity of the problem, a strategic planning meeting is convened, a “solution” is arrived at by a group (or perhaps just the individual in charge), and the organization then immediately turns to implementation at scale. This approach tends to fail for several reasons. Those closest to the problem are not involved in ideating potential changes, missing key insights as to what is truly the problem; ideas are not tested before implementation, so unseen challenges or unintended consequences develop during scaling; opportunities to test effective strategies at a smaller are missed, which leads to paralysis later on and a reticence to admit failure; and insufficient data are often collected along the way to know if the change effort led to meaningful improvement.
To address these limitations, the National Association of System Heads is developing a new method for delivering results for students, called the NASH Improvement Model. It is currently being prototyped to accelerate the pace of transfer student success interventions. The NASH Improvement Model embraces improvement science as its core methodology and has adjusted the approach to fit the needs of institutions of higher education, focused specifically on public higher education systems.
Improvement science is the discipline that seeks to bridge the divide that exists between the knowledge that something can work and the knowledge of how to make it work reliably across diverse contexts and populations. Improvement methodology is the dominant form of quality management in other industries, such as manufacturing, software development, military management and health care. In the higher education context, improvement science allows for small, rapid tests of change identified by the faculty and staff at campuses that work directly with students and are closest to the problem. Successful ideas are then tested iteratively, while failed ideas are quickly identified and discarded—a “fail before scale” approach.
The NASH Improvement Model builds upon the best methods of improvement science and organizes the work within NASH Improvement Communities (NICs). The Institute for Systems Innovation and Improvement provides coordination, project support, professional development and knowledge management; while the participating systems provide leadership and coordination to their campus teams, which are comprised of faculty and staff with expertise in the problem of practice. In 2022, NASH launched three NICs addressing three different problems of practice: transfer, curricular flexibility and equity-focused student success interventions. Twelve systems are participating (four per NIC) and a total of 34 campus teams. Collectively, these systems represent 136 campuses and over 1.2 million students.
The first NIC on transfer launched in summer 2022 and has already delivered impressive results. Four state systems have participated in this effort, and all four are seeing tangible benefits for students from this approach: the University of Illinois, the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, PASSHE and Texas A&M. For example, one campus team innovated a new “auto-admit” bar to issue transfer admissions decisions to students faster, ensuring they could better plan for their upcoming transfer; a second team tested a nonfaculty advisement approach to ensure incoming transfer students get registered for courses over the summer when faculty advisers are not available; a third team proactively reached out to students who were denied admission as freshmen but who enrolled in neighboring community colleges, encouraging them to think about the institution as a transfer destination; and a fourth team tested their standing transfer policy by auditing their most recent incoming transfer class and found 2,414 additional credits that should have been awarded to students, immediately changing the course of students’ retention and completion journeys. These were four examples of the 30 change ideas that were successfully tested within the first action cycle of 45 days. This work will continue across four action cycles occurring within a 12-month period.
Importantly, successful change ideas will be identified and disseminated via NASH’s knowledge management capacity in three ways, allowing for rapid and successful scaling. First, campuses within a system that are not participating directly in a NIC can adopt the changes. Second, change ideas can be scaled across systems that are in the same NIC. Finally, change ideas can be scaled nationwide across the entire NASH network of 48 public higher education systems.
While we are still early in our journey and learning as we go, the early results are promising. We recognize that improvement science is not the appropriate method to solve every problem, and NASH will continue apply a variety of approaches to improve outcomes for students with our member systems. Yet it is clear that new models of reform are urgently needed for higher education institutions to adapt to a rapidly changing world. The NASH Improvement Model offers a radical departure from the slow-moving, top-down decision-making processes that often are employed in the sector. But it is precisely this approach—nimble, fearless and embracing of failure—that can lead to the biggest breakthroughs. It has worked in other sectors—why not ours? Improvement science is sometimes referred to as the art of “getting better at getting better.” NASH aims to become the best at getting better, at scale.
For more information, please consult the NASH website or contact Dan Knox, director, NASH Institute for Systems Innovation & Improvement ([email protected]), or Juliette Price, chief solutions officer, Helgerson Solutions Group ([email protected]), Twitter and LinkedIn.