Survey Data from Students Spurs Tribal Colleges and Universities to Action

By Kathy Adair, Lisa Azure, Scott Friskics, Charles Roessel, and Leah Woodke with Cindy Lopez

Elevating the student voice is a powerful way to stimulate institutional change that improves the student experience and boosts outcomes. Students have intimate knowledge of a college’s systems, which is critical to helping institutions understand themselves and serve students better.  When students are invited to share what they think is working or not working or why they drop out, institutions have the opportunity to listen, learn and respond.

With the value of students’ experiences in mind, Achieving the Dream (ATD) collaborated with the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE), the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, and the American Indian College Fund, with input from the field, on CCCSE’s Survey of Entering Student Engagement and the Community College Survey of Student Engagement. These surveys were administered by the majority of the nation’s Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) to their students in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Survey highlights are now available in the report Preserving Culture and Planning for the Future: An Exploration of Student Experiences at Tribal Colleges.

The survey data gathered at the TCUs represent a comprehensive collection of stories about students’ lived experience of college, offering an invaluable resource to help eliminate speculation about why students make the choices they make. Data can point to areas where colleges could be proactive and build on what’s working or reconsider what’s not. Students and institutions invest in student success, and student input can reduce the costs borne by both students and institutions when students drop out.

TCU student stories, told through the survey results, have sparked action at ATD institutions Aaniiih Nakoda College, Bay Mills Community College, United Tribes Technical College, and Diné College.

Aaniiih Nakoda College

Based on data from both surveys, Aaniiih Nakoda College, located on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Harlem, MT, is implementing a “Fall Fling” for its students during the first few weeks of the fall semester. Scott Friskics, Director of Special Programs at Aaniiih Nakoda College, said student responses to a question on both surveys, which were administered in the early fall, about feeling a sense of belonging within a class or through another experience revealed that the percentage of students who agreed or strongly agreed (76.9 percent) was “quite a bit below the average for TCUs (88.2 percent).” Friskics noted the college took the student response to heart. He said, “For a very small college that really prides itself on being a very student-centered, community-centered institution, that kind of disturbed us.”

Friskics continued, “However, when our students were asked to respond to the same statement on CCSSE in the spring, 90.9% of students either agreed or strongly agreed with this statement, compared to 88.8% of students at all TCUs. This response rate was more in line with what we expected. By the spring, almost all of our students have developed a sense of belonging at ANC.”

Although the response to the same question improved from fall to spring, Friskics said the college “thought we could do more to cultivate this sense of belonging much earlier in the student experience.” The college already hosts a very popular annual "Spring Fling" event with games, community activities, and a big "feed." Based on the survey data, he said the college plans to try something similar – a Fall Fling - during the first few weeks of the fall 2019 semester to immediately begin building a sense of connection and belonging among brand new students and strengthen the feeling for returning students. The fall even also will be included in the college’s new strategic plan to make sure it is identified as an institutional priority.

Bay Mills Community College

Bay Mills Community College (BMCC), a tribally controlled community college located in the Eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan, leveraged food security data from the CCSSE to support student persistence and learning.  Kathy Adair, Director of Development/Assessment, indicated that this data revealed that over a quarter (26.6  percent) of BMCC students responded affirmatively to a question about food insufficiency. Before the CCSSE survey was conducted, there had been some discussion on providing food options to BMCC students, and some staff had researched food pantry options, according to Adair. She said, “President Parish felt the food pantry option was not a good one due to staffing requirements.  We currently have two elders that cook and serve lunch for $5.00; however, even that price is too high for some students.  In order to make it worthwhile for the elders to make lunches, the college guarantees a certain income each week, after all revenues from food sales have been calculated.”
However, the results of the CCSSE survey indicated that more than one-fourth of the campus community was food insecure, and that data caused the college to begin researching new options. Adair said the college applied to become a mobile food pantry distribution site in 2017 in order to provide food for students, their families and the greater community. To date, BMCC has provided 21,658 lbs. or 18,000 meals to the community with an estimated value exceeding $47,000.00. Students, staff, and faculty volunteer to set up and distribute 10,000 lbs. of food with each delivery. There are no income or other restrictions on using the food pantry.

According to President Parish, “BMCC, through its faculty and staff, attempt to make the college experience a good one. With that in mind, we attempt to address the students’ physical well-being, which helps the student to succeed in their studies knowing that they and their families are provided for.”

United Tribes Technical College

United Tribes Technical College (UTTC), located in Bismarck, North Dakota, serves almost 1000 students representing over 75 tribal nations from across the US each year. The college reviewed its SENSE data in order to better understand factors that may be impacting entering students’ fall to spring semester persistence. According to Lisa Azure, Vice President of Academic Affairs, and Leah Woodke, Institutional Research Director, the data indicated students were not exhibiting behaviors that reflected what the survey called “high expectations” to the degree that their peers at other TCUs or the 2017 cohort colleges were exhibiting.

Once UTTC reviewed the data, the college initiated a campus-wide effort to promote messages of high expectations. Faculty were asked to brainstorm strategies for promoting high expectations in the classroom. For example, faculty identified and implemented practices for accepting late/missing work that were shared with the students and used in all classes so the expectations were consistent. In addition, the web-based retention system was reconfigured to begin attendance and academic performance alerts to students that included messages conveying high expectations and identifying available resources. Although the system had been in use for some time, messages only were sent to faculty and staff. Including the students in the conversation has resulted in an increase in effort on their part to remedy the issues that caused the alert. The college anticipates that promoting high expectations will help to increase persistence rates for entering students and build strong academic habits for all students.

Diné College

Diné College is a small rural college that serves 3,388 students at six sites on the Navajo Nation in Arizona and New Mexico. President Monte Roessel reported that the college focused on studying data related to transportation and persistence. Specifically, the college reviewed data from questions that probed the likelihood that the distance between the college and home could be cause for withdrawal from a class or the institution and the likelihood that the lack of reliable transportation could cause students to withdraw from class or the school. Fifty-eight percent of students indicated that they were likely or very likely to withdraw because of problems with  transportation. Based on this data, the college began running two shuttles between several campus sites as a pilot and will determine if it should invest in a full transportation shuttle service.

TCUs are listening to their students’ stories and using survey data to address their needs. Some needs reflected in TCU SENSE and CCSSE data can be addressed rather quickly; others require additional strategic planning and institutional reform, such as information around advising or teaching and learning. Most importantly, TCUs are mining the “student voices data” to reform the student experience in ways that will likely lead to increased student success.  After all, who will stay in college if they don’t feel like they belong? Who can focus on their studies if they are hungry? Combined student voices are a powerful change agent. Every college should leverage them as part of their transformational process to a student-centered institution.

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