Shorter terms at Odessa College: “An overnight success several years in the making”

This spring Achieving the Dream released Preparing for Shortened Academic Terms, a guide designed to support institutions making the shift to shorter terms. The guide is informed by the experiences of colleges that have already made the transition, and includes a workbook and six college spotlights that detail how and why institutions have shifted to shorter terms. The below is excerpted from the Odessa College spotlight. Odessa College is an ATD Leader College of Distinction, and was one of ten finalists for the 2021 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. The complete document, the guide, and five more college spotlights are available for download here.

THE “WHY”

Odessa College began transitioning to shorter academic terms in fall 2014, when they converted 80 percent of their courses from a 16-week semester to two eight-week terms. The journey began with a conversation between the president and the faculty senate chair: They recognized that students experienced much more success during the shorter “flex terms” offered at the college and wondered whether they could replicate that format and outcome for all students.

For many students who attend Odessa, their lives revolve around the oil and gas industry. Employment security depends on the economy. The college’s data showed that fatigue and disruption caused by life barriers were a real issue for the momentum of their students, despite the effective programming already in place at the college. In order to create momentum and reduce the enrollment-to-degree duration without increasing overall time or cost, the college felt that a shift to eight-week terms would serve their students best. If students took fewer courses, they would have less to focus on at one time and would lose fewer credits if they needed to temporarily stop out.

THE WORK

Odessa College is no stranger to transformative change focused on student success, having implemented their drop-rate improvement plan in fall 2011. When the college announced the change to an eight-week academic calendar, faculty and staff jumped in. They had a strong foundation to build on and support systems in place that seemed to make the transition to shorter terms easier. They were an “overnight success several years in the making” due to the previous investment in their culture.

“You must be committed to student success in a way that you look at it every day.”

Odessa has been active in the ATD Network since 2009 and credits ATD with helping them transform to a data-informed institution. Having experienced a high level of student success after 2011 with their drop-rate improvement program, the college was concerned that a transition to an eight-week calendar would jeopardize the gains they made. The entire leadership team monitored student success during the eight-week implementation and were ready to pivot in any way they needed to. They were dedicated to selecting key metrics for success and then monitoring those metrics early and often.

COMMUNICATION TO STUDENTS

During the COVID-19 crisis, the college leveraged all their staff to reach out to their 6,500 students. The students appreciated the outreach and felt they were still supported even while in a remote environment. That level of communication has made their advisors and coaches more successful in working with students through transitions and transformations at the college.

During an eight-week term, classes progress quickly and waiting to get help to a struggling student is not an option. Thanks to their drop-rate improvement program, Odessa already had different behavioral intervention protocols established between faculty and their success coaches. Odessa worked proactively with both students and faculty to ensure they understood that immediate feedback was important. Students were unable to wait to ask for help and faculty should not have to wait to flag a student for an intervention.

INTERNAL COMMUNICATION

Odessa’s collaborative and communicative culture was also evident during the course redesign process, where they saw faculty working together across divisions and departments. For example, faculty in the criminal justice department compared syllabi and learning outcomes for adjacent classes and realized they were teaching (or reteaching) a lot of the same content. In response, faculty came together to determine what students really needed to know to be successful in that industry, and they adjusted the courses appropriately. These conversations are vital, and a culture that encourages this type of collaboration is critical to a solid start and future success.

LESSONS LEARNED

Leadership is important. Senior leadership was highly engaged with the move to eight-week terms at Odessa. Their president was involved, but they also had excellent collaboration between Academic Affairs and Student Success. They met weekly as an administrative team where everyone was kept up to date on details. Leadership across all areas of the college was vital, and they reflected that if you do not have the president and the vice presidents working together with leaders from IR, IT, finance, financial aid, and the bookstore, it just doesn’t work very well.

Continuous on-ramps provide additional enrollment opportunities. Odessa’s structure created more off-ramps when they moved to an eight-week structure, but they also created twice as many on-ramps to course enrollment each semester: They still had options available to students who arrived after the fall 1 term started that did not require a 15-week wait. For Odessa, leveraging this second on-ramp proved to be a real opportunity for enrollment growth. Two years after launching their eight-week terms, Odessa reported a 13-percent overall increase in enrollment. Five years after launching, Odessa reports an overall enrollment increase of 25 percent.

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