The Texas A&M University System is a leader in educational, research, and community outreach services. Founded in 1948, the system oversees 11 universities and eight state agencies. Its roots stem from the founding of land-grant colleges Texas A&M University and Prairie View A&M University in 1876. Since then, other universities have joined the system, each with its own mission and goals.
As ReUp learned from Shonda Gibson, the A&M System’s Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, the system’s overarching mission is to match the student population with the demographics of the state, in addition to eliminating gaps in equity and access to higher education. To that end, the A&M System sought out a systemwide solution to re-engage and enroll adult learners and stopout students.
They began working with ReUp for its consultative approach and hands-on support to reach nontraditional students—support such as student coaching and student success data tracking that garnered significant insights over time.
You’ve worked in higher ed for over 10 years now with Texas A&M. From your perspective, what are some of the challenges facing students that have stopped out or put a pause on their education?
Shonda Some things are the same, in terms of students being overwhelmed with what to study and why they need to follow a traditional, four-year path. But today, students expect their education to be more accommodating to their schedules. They also expect instant answers and transparency from universities, and they get frustrated. Now, their voices and frustrations are even more amplified through different online channels.
The question for all learners, but especially stopouts students, becomes: is college worth it? In the past, there’s been more of a guarantee that you’ll have a clear path to a future. You’re going to work in the same job for the rest of your life. But today, students can spend 10 years building a career and then completely abandon that to go do something else altogether. There isn’t a fear of transitioning into something different.
How have you adapted your enrollment strategy in general to meet the current climate?
Shonda In this environment, enrollment and recruitment is a constant work in progress. I had an enrollment manager with over 30 years of experience, working in multiple states, and two years ago, they told me, “I don’t know what industry I’m in anymore.”
Everything has shifted—the way we recruit and the way we engage with prospective students. I had a meeting the other day with somebody who mailed me an Oculus, and I don’t even know what it is! Thank goodness my nine-year-old grandson was there, he could explain it. And I’m sitting there thinking, when I was looking at colleges, we had to drive to a campus and we had to go look around in person.
Technology’s moving faster than we can even be ready for. So conversations among our universities, through communities of practice, are taking place to enable us to think about what technologies are out there that we can leverage. We can discuss the successful innovations that we’ve seen over the last few years, and then how we can really build and move forward. Those are constant strategy discussions.
How has having a more focused strategy on adult learners impacted the A&M System’s system in terms of culture?
Shonda When I started my career in enrollment, there were three major buckets, and now there is this fourth focus area on adult learners. I don’t even know if they would’ve been a viable student population 10 years ago. You know, when I asked this question many years back, people didn’t know what I was talking about. And maybe I was sensitive to this because I was that student; I was an adult learner, and nobody ever called or reached out to me. Nobody ever said: you should come back to our university and finish what you started.
And now, I think our campuses see that clearly we need to help the state meet its equity and demographic goals. This adult learner re-engagement strategy has also shed light on the fact that, disproportionately, we are seeing students of color stop out. I also think everybody’s keenly aware that our economy cannot run if we don’t have an educated workforce.
You partnered with ReUp to support your re-enrollment strategy. What were some of your specific goals in mind before the partnership?
Shonda We have two big goals as a system: to serve the state of Texas and match the demographic of our state, and that we’re going to erase the equity gaps that currently exist in achievement and gaining credentials. Those two things really drive everything they talk about in every meeting that we have. We’re not just looking at the barriers and issues to re-enrollment, but what the initial problem was that was keeping them from staying on track in the first place.
What were some key takeaways from your partnership with ReUp, and what insights did you share with your wider team?
Shonda There were many, but one example is that we hosted a convening last year around stopout students and we really broke down the myths that exist. The publications that ReUp produced really helped people to see that students returning to school is not solely a GPA issue; this is not a student ability issue. These myths have been out there for a very long time with higher ed faculty, with staff, with leaders. Now, more people are realizing that there isn’t an excuse—we can’t blame it [stopping out of school] on the student.
What advice would you give to other institutions who are working towards similar goals?
Shonda When implementing lasting change to your enrollment strategy, it’s important to have a partner that can help campuses in a very non-judgemental way. To look at what you’re doing and say: here are the things that you’re doing that are great, but here are the missed opportunities. We can then understand where to focus and what to prioritize and improve over time. Another added benefit of having an outside observer is that individual staff feel more secure in their positions—they can see it’s not that what they’re doing is wrong, it’s just that there are better ways to tackle problems more effectively.
And major changes like the ones that we implemented with ReUp take time. It’s not an overnight thing because there are so many elements. In our case, every campus was at a different stage in the process. We’ve always been thoughtful about what suggestions we offer for the next stage of improvement, and we bring the student voice into the conversation, which has really helped to illustrate how students are thinking about the policies that impact their lives—this has been critical.
Schedule a call with a ReUp team member to learn more about what a ReUp partnership could do for your institution.