Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) is located just outside of Washington, D.C., near EAB headquarters. Despite close proximity to the country’s political elite, NOVA’s student population more closely mirrors the diversity of an average community college campus: over half of students enroll part-time, one-quarter of the population is enrolled in at least one online course, and the college is home to students of varying racial, national (they represent more than 180 countries), and socioeconomic backgrounds.
NOVA is also a long-time member of our Community College Executive Forum, and more recently of Student Success Collaborative—Navigate. We sat down with Cynthia Pascal, acting Director of Student Services, to chat about some of the most vexing questions in her role:
- How to advise a declared math major who registered himself in a schedule full of child development courses
- What Redesigning America’s Community Colleges left unanswered
- Advice for college leadership hoping to engage advisors in institutional change
Melinda Salaman: I’ll admit it’s ironic that in my last blog post, I implored readers to pay attention to best practices that come from small, rural colleges, and I’m now spotlighting one of the most lauded, well-respected institutions in the industry.
Dispel the myth that award-winning institutions like NOVA have all the answers—what challenges does your college face?
Cynthia Pascal: In my role, I’m constantly figuring out what’s working and what’s not working for our students—we’re not perfect. There are a lot of unintended barriers to student success at NOVA that hinder student momentum, and my team is responsible for helping students navigate them.
Like most other colleges, we’ve traditionally had a cafeteria-style approach to onboarding. As a student, you can really sign up for anything and do anything, and there’s nothing in place to stop you from doing so.
I remember this one student I advised many years ago who wanted to be a math major. But when I looked at his schedule, he was taking a whole bunch of child development psychology classes because he thought it was interesting! That’s his prerogative, of course, but it was my job to tell him that these courses didn’t contribute to his major requirements and would not be covered by financial aid.
MS: The now-famous Redesigning America’s Community Colleges book by Thomas R. Bailey and the team at the Community College Resource Center (CCRC) found that, unfortunately, it’s fairly common for community college students to choose a random selection of courses that don’t count towards their majors. Why do you think that is?
CP: The problem with traditional forms of self-advising, when you just leave students up to their own devices, is that they think all of their random choices will work out in the end. Unfortunately, not only will it not work out in terms of their time to degree, but there are also implications for financial aid and transfer.
This presents a big opportunity for us as an open-access institution to introduce Guided Pathways: we can help students find the path they should be going on, but that takes strategic use of academic and faculty advising, an environment that is hospitable to those decisions, and the right use of technology.
Related post: How well is your college actually doing Pathways?
MS: To me it seems that just about every conference session I attended this year voiced support for this transformational change on campus. But what’s missing from traditional conversations about Guided Pathways?
CP: The book has absolutely influenced conversations on campus. We’re redesigning how we operate. There are things that work really well, and we should continue to do them; but for those that don’t, we need to redesign our approach to academic and student services.
At this point, I understand the “why” and the “what,” but I don’t understand the “how”—How will this impact student services? How do these changes impact our current advising practices? How does the faculty fit in the equation?
MS: What advice would you offer to college leaders moving forward with Guided Pathways?
CP: First, plant the seed early. If you communicate news too late, the staff’s reaction is going to be fear and panic. But if you plant the seed over a year, there’s an opportunity over time to educate people.
Secondly, be transparent about your intentions. If the institutional change means everyone’s jobs are going to change, then just tell the staff that their jobs are going to change. Our senior leaders at NOVA haven’t minced words, or tried to sugar-coat any of the changes coming to the college, and I truly respect that.
Also, share your resources with the staff. Show staff Redesigning America’s Community Colleges, share job market data, and explain why major changes are coming to the college. That way, the staff knows the rationale for changes, rather than feel blind-sided.
Lastly, bring in key stakeholders at all levels. Even if it’s not clear how a change will immediately impact someone’s job, bring them in anyway—there are always unintended consequences. An example of this is in the financial aid office, or your Quality Enhancement Plan director, who needs to be looped into changes for accreditation.
MS: We started our conversation talking about challenges, so let’s end on a more positive note. What do you consider a major success at NOVA, and how do you hope to build on that success in the future?
CP: Our Student Development Course (SDV) has made a huge impact on our campus. It was part of a whole new campaign about two years ago introducing six policy changes focused on improving student success. In the course, we help students shape their own college experience. The final project is to create a course map—identify their goals and create pathways to get there. We’re teaching them to explore career paths, and apply that to their lives.
The course has [improved student outcomes], but is only required in the first 15 credit hours for students who are first-time college entrants aged 24 and younger; our non-traditional students must take the course, but the timing of enrollment isn’t enforced.
I see Navigate as a way to highlight the importance of taking this course early to students who are older than 24 years old, or have transfer credits. These students want to be self-guided and want access to guidance 24/7, often at all hours of the night—flexible access to technology like Navigate is exactly what they need to get structure that fits with academic, professional, and personal schedules.