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University of Wyoming's Catalyst for Change

As part of an ongoing series, join us as we delve into the University of Wyoming’s transformation process, the challenges faced, strategies employed, and future plans for continued innovation in student success. Dr. Nycole Courtney’s leadership and vision have catalyzed the University of Wyoming's approach to student success and institutional change through the Intermediaries for Scale (IFS) initiative. APLU interviewed @Nycole Courtney to learn more about the University of Wyoming’s journey and what she’s learned along the way.

What is Nycole’s role at the University of Wyoming, and how has she been involved in the institutional transformation process?

She currently serves as the Dean of Student Success and Graduation and Associate Vice President for Student Affairs at the University of Wyoming, her alma mater. Throughout her time at the university, Nycole has been a driving force behind the institution's transformation process. She has played a crucial role in redefining the university's approach to student success and fostering a culture of continuous improvement.

"My position was created to focus on retention efforts and create strategies for closing equity gaps. I work collaboratively with faculty and staff to develop and implement programs that support our students." From the beginning, Nycole emphasized a comprehensive approach to student success. The university’s leadership, including the Provost, has emphasized that “student success is everyone’s job. So, we’re going to name it as a priority.”

To get started, the University assembled a 'transformation team' to assess various aspects of the university's readiness, including Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI); four-year degree pathways; advising; and other priority areas. Recognizing the importance of culture shifting and change management, the university established the multidisciplinary Student Success Institutional Transformation Task Force (SSIT), which has had a significant impact on institutional culture by addressing barriers faced by students of all backgrounds and working to improve academic experiences, climate, policies, and procedures, plus college navigation. This commitment has profoundly influenced the culture and approach at the University of Wyoming, ensuring that students feel supported, valued, and heard.

What was the main challenge the University of Wyoming faced in student success, and how did Nycole and her team decide to tackle it?

The main challenge the University of Wyoming faced in student success was improving retention rates, particularly from freshman to sophomore year. Nycole acknowledged that they were ‘average’ in this area but had room to grow. To her, “Retention itself is an outcome. It's not the actual process. So, the challenge for us was building the process to get to higher retention."

To address this challenge, Nycole and her team built a strategic plan for student success, focusing on reducing student success barriers both through institutional causes and national known barriers. They started with the eight Barriers to Student Success identified by the EAB and other areas requiring the most focus.  Collaboration was crucial in addressing these barriers. Nycole emphasized the importance of working closely with faculty and staff across campus to create a unified approach to student success, breaking down silos. By establishing the Student Success Institutional Transformation Task Force, the team was able to grasp culture change and start rowing in the same direction towards higher retention as the outcome. The team also considered the role of DEI in building better retention. They started to unpack the reasons behind their work and how DEI could contribute to their ultimate goal of achieving higher retention by reducing student success barriers.

How did the team gather the necessary data to make informed decisions about student success?

Initially, the UW team brought in their Office of Institutional Analysis to participate in the Postsecondary Data Partnership (PDP) project, a National Student Clearinghouse-led initiative that simplifies data collection and reporting for higher education institutions. Participation provides access to key student success metrics, helping institutions identify areas for improvement and evaluate program effectiveness. However, as their involvement was not sustainable long-term, they focused on gathering the necessary data internally to create their own student success dashboards. Nycole explained, "Now we have these live dashboards, and we’re going in and looking [at the data] on the regular as opposed to having to reinvent the wheel every time, and it just stays updated out of our student information system."

They analyzed various priorities and barriers that students faced and crafted a strategic plan for student success, emphasizing actions, assessments, and outcomes to enhance retention rates. By examining the barriers to success, the team could develop their plan. Nycole further emphasized the value of data-driven decision-making, adding, "Having access to accurate, real-time data has been instrumental in helping us identify areas where we can improve and measure the impact of our programs. We're now able to make informed decisions and adapt our strategies based on what the data is telling us."

The dashboard has proven to be a tremendous success, enabling the team to present an annual retention report to the Board of Trustees, focusing on different student populations, and holding them accountable for their work. Nycole elaborated, "We were able to take this dashboard, really focus in on the last three years and talk about retention." She also noted, "Now we're accountable to that work, which is great." By utilizing this data-driven approach and implementing a strategic plan for student success, the University of Wyoming team can analyze retention and probation rates, address various barriers and priorities in student retention, and work towards achieving higher retention rates.

Are there any specific initiatives or programs that the University has implemented that Nycole and her team are particularly proud of and why?

Nycole is particularly proud of the Saddle Up onboarding program implemented at the University of Wyoming. This initiative, inspired by the success of institutions like the University of Nevada-Reno, aims to ensure a smooth transition for incoming first-time, full-time students and improve overall retention rates. Highlighting its impact, “We put 1500 students through this program…We went from 90% retention for fall to spring, full-time, first-time students to 93% this year.” Additionally, they hope the program will lead to “a significant reduction in the equity gap between underrepresented students and their peers.” Since the program only started in Fall 2022, more data will be evaluated over time. The team is continuously building on this initiative, focusing on students on probation and capturing these students before they go on suspension. Their work with students on probation received a boost through the Data Literacy Institute project offered by APLU and the Association of Institutional Research (AIR) in Spring 2023. Nycole explained, "The AIR project is focusing solely on probation, and we're building out a proposal for funding from potential donors that says, 'Every student on probation can opt into either a course or self-guided recovery.’” These students would receive support from a ‘Cowboy Coach’ peer mentor and an academic coach providing more intrusive advising to help them stay on track. She expressed enthusiasm for the project's outcomes and is excited to see continued progress in student success.

How has the University's involvement in the Intermediaries for Scale initiative impacted the University of Wyoming's culture and approach to student success?

Nycole expressed, “The University of Wyoming is very humble and very appreciative of this opportunity.” The IFS initiative has enabled the university to manage a larger scope of work within a shorter period and facilitated the collection and analysis of data more effectively, helping to build the Student Success dashboard. IFS provided access to valuable resources, insights, and connections, fostering a culture of continuous improvement and accountability. Further, “There's now a greater sense of urgency and shared responsibility when it comes to student success,” she said.

Each IFS cohort institution completed an Institutional Transformation Assessment (ITA), which is a web-based tool that helps universities understand institutional strengths and areas for improvement with the goal of building capacity to better support students on campus and develop an action plan for reaching the institution’s student success goals. The ITA was the catalyst for change on campus, showing the university's readiness and the need for culture change. Participation in the IFS cohort led directly to the creation of the multidisciplinary Strategic Student Success Institutional Transformation Task Force, allowing the university to build bridges and partnerships, blending Academic and Student Affairs in a way that was desperately needed. Indirectly, it has created a more supportive and inclusive environment for all students. She emphasized the importance of conveying to students that “you belong, you matter, speak up, lean in, whatever that is, and we will support you.”

Additionally, Nycole saw the APLU community as an invaluable resource. She highlighted the rewarding journey of working with APLU and its impact on the university, saying, “It has allowed us to address critical issues and stay relevant in the higher education landscape.” Their Provost and Vice President for Student Affairs see a lot of value in the IFS initiative, and student success is now named in the larger strategic plan. Through the IFS initiative, the University of Wyoming has been able to foster a culture of student success that will continue to grow and thrive.

What are the future plans for continued innovation in student success at the University of Wyoming?

Nycole envisions ongoing growth and development in the area of student success at the University of Wyoming, stating, “We're always looking for new ways to innovate and support our students. Some of our future plans include expanding our Saddle Up program to reach even more students, implementing targeted interventions for specific student populations, and leveraging technology to improve the overall student experience.” The University will embed student success into its strategic plan and seek philanthropic support for initiatives such as completion grants.

Emphasizing collaboration, shared vision, community, and belonging, Nycole indicated, “One of the most important aspects of our work is fostering a culture of collaboration and continuous improvement across campus. As we move forward, we'll continue to work closely with faculty, staff, and students to identify opportunities for growth and ensure that we're all working together to support the success of every student at the University of Wyoming.” She highlighted the importance of community and belonging: “It provided a lens that students really need community. And they really need to build that sense of belonging just as much as our institution needed it for itself.”

The IFS provided “a pivotal opportunity to scale and sustain a culture of student success. It now has been embedded and weaved into our work enough that I don’t think it’s going anywhere.” She also stressed, "There's no one-size-fits-all solution for student success. It's essential to be agile, adaptive, and open to new ideas." With Dr. Nycole Courtney’s leadership, the University is poised for even greater achievements in the future!

As we conclude this first blog on the University of Wyoming's transformative journey, we celebrate their commitment to fostering a culture of student success. Stay tuned for the second installment of our series next month, where we will continue to highlight the remarkable progress made by institutions participating in the Intermediaries for Scale initiative, shedding light on their innovative strategies, collaborative efforts, and the impact they have on higher education. Join us as we explore the inspiring stories that are shaping the future of student success.

Tags: University of Wyoming, IFS, Institutional Transformation, Intermediaries for Scale

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