With another milestone in the rearview mirror, Rend Lake College is one step closer to reaccreditation through the Higher Learning Commission (HLC). The on-going, 10-year process includes five major components – one of which is the Quality Initiative Report. Last month, the college received word from HLC that the Quality Initiative Report was accepted by the commission.
“We are very proud of the hard work and genuine effort recognized by HLC demonstrating our commitment to our students and their success,” said RLC President Terry Wilkerson.
RLC’s Quality Initiative Report focused on the recently revamped orientation program called First Year Experience (FYE). It was during RLC’s last reaccreditation in 2008 that plans were initially laid for development and implementation of FYE, though the process didn’t kick into gear until the hiring of FYE Coordinator Hillary Halsey in the fall of 2013.
During the following semester, curriculum was developed by the coordinator and many others on campus, instructors were identified and trained, and the program piloted in the spring of 2014 for all first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students. As the semesters came and went, all incoming freshmen students were included, part-time students joined the fold, and most recently, an online program was implemented in the fall of 2017.
Lisa Price, Vice President of Student Services, said the old orientation program was an online class wherein students read modules and answered questions. This version wasn’t as successful in certain areas for all students.
“Our online orientation was getting the necessary student success information to students, but we weren’t addressing one of the major retention issues community college students face: making campus relationships,” said Price. “The only consistent interaction students had with college staff was with their instructors. We changed to a face-to-face module so students would have weekly contact with someone other than their instructors with whom they could build a relationship and who could them navigate through their first year of college.”
Henry Leeck, Dean of Liberal Arts and co-author of the Quality Initiative Report, added that student interaction with student services was high on the priority list.
“We decided the orientation class was not accomplishing some of the things it needed to accomplish, due to a lack of face-to-face interaction. We decided we needed to be more intrusive in helping students learn what they needed to know in order to better navigate college life and be successful,” said Leeck. “One of the biggest goals was to get students connected to the services we offer, and the best way to do that was to have them in a classroom where they have to engage.”
The current FYE program includes curriculum that introduces students to tools in 10 key areas to help them be successful. Some of those areas cover campus resources, college etiquette, team building, study skills and time management, academic policies and procedures, advisement, financial aid, career planning, financial literacy, a service learning project, and others.
“FYE is very interactive. One of our main priorities is to establish a relationship with our students, so we do a lot of team building activities while teaching things like college policies and procedures, and where to find campus resources,” said Halsey. “Each week we have a new topic. They range from talking about advisement and degree requirements, to learning grade point average calculations. Each instructor is able to put their own spin on the class. I always open with a ‘question of the day,’ and all students are required to respond out loud. This always sparks good conversation and builds morale among the students.”
To prove results and changes among the student population seen by increased traffic for faculty and staff, RLC set some goals to increase retention rates from semester to semester and from year to year, both for full-time and part-time students. Retention rates are the number of first-time, full-time students who continue their education at RLC a second year.
Retention rates for full-time students before FYE’s implementation, based on 2012-13 Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data, was 61 percent. Most recent data, from fall 2015 to fall 2016, states RLC’s retention rate has increased to 70 percent. Results for part-time students began the analysis phase in the fall of 2017.
Leeck said a connection can be made between faculty and staff getting to know students and their educational barriers with the rise in retention rates.
“In the past three years, we have started to be more involved in student success through reaching out to those we identify as struggling and helping students drop classes they do not attend in the first two weeks. RLCares has also been started as a safe place for students to go if they feel they have issues or barriers that are restricting their ability to come to class and be successful,” said Leeck. “In the past, we did not have a well-defined class to talk about these problems and barriers students encounter, and FYE allows for those discussions to occur in an open environment. That feedback can be shared with other groups on campus, who then can develop initiatives to foster success.”
Halsey, also a co-author of the Quality Initiative Report, added, “I feel like I’ve grown leaps and bounds in terms of understanding our student body since FYE began and truly feel that the class has a positive impact on students.”
And the positive impact doesn’t stop with RLC students. Two years ago, Halsey added a new service learning project called Flat Stanley for in-district elementary schools. Since the fall of 2015, Stanley has served as a gateway to the Ina campus for over 1,200 local second graders in Belle Rive, Benton, Bluford, Dahlgren, Ewing, McLeansboro, Mt. Vernon, Opdyke, Pinckneyville, Sesser, and Woodlawn.
To get the project going, elementary schools have their second graders color and design their own Flat Stanley, which is then mailed to the college and distributed among FYE students. For the following few weeks, RLC students show Flat Stanley around campus, taking pictures to fill a booklet of stories for the second graders to read. RLC students then deliver the booklets to each school to talk to the children about college life.
Halsey said the implementation of Flat Stanley was initially to expose young students to higher education, and has had the unexpected outcome of giving the college students a platform to become role models.
“Service learning has always been a part of the FYE program, but I wanted a project that would tie our campus to surrounding communities,” said Halsey. “Overall, I think our students have really enjoyed this project. Grade schools have loved it too. We have so many classrooms wanting to participate each year that we’ve had to alternate schools to include everyone.”
Because FYE is a program designed around the ever-changing college culture and students, the classes will also change. One future change-up to the module schedule is planned for the spring 2018 semester with the inclusion of a new cultural diversity class. Leeck said this new aspect will highlight some of the best things in the RLC district.
“The cultural diversity module is going to focus on a selection of activities that will highlight some of the things our area has to offer, plus a series of guest speakers with an emphasis on diversity. This is still in infancy, but we are working hard to have it in place for the spring semester,” said Leeck.
A new workbook with a planner and other college materials is also on the horizon. Currently, students need only use a planner for the course.
“This class is a living thing, it is not static. As we identify things that need to be added or changed we will make the adjustments,” added Leeck.
After reviewing RLC’s Quality Initiative Report, HLC submitted a report back to the college with comments and peer reviews. According to the peer review, “RLC demonstrated seriousness of the undertaking, that the initiative had scope and impact, a commitment to and engagement in the initiative, and adequate resource provision. The panel confirmed genuine effort on the part of the institution.”
The HLC finding continues to state, “Rend Lake College has demonstrated a continuous effort to complete the development and implementation of a First Year Experience program. It developed a curriculum and has updated it as necessary with both faculty and student input.”