College of Education EFLT researcher codifying student success program effectiveness

Student success programs are not new to higher education, but formalizing and improving those programs is often a challenge. To do so requires broad and concise transformation efforts with measurable and sustainable outcomes.

Dr. Leonard Taylor

Dr. Leonard Taylor — an associate professor in Auburn University’s College of Education, Higher Education Administration, or HiED, program — is conducting a series of research programs focused on cultivating, sustaining and improving the effectiveness of student success programs in higher education.

Auburn University received more than $800,000 in total funding from Lumina Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support this work. Research funded by the Gates Foundation is focused on understanding ways to better implement student success programs at two- and four-year institutions. Activity supported by Lumina Foundation is centered on how four-year institutions implement programs in an equity-minded way. Taylor’s most recent project is getting underway for which Auburn University received nearly $500,000 in additional support from the Gates Foundation.

“My current project seeks to identify the necessary conditions for post-secondary institutional transformation and create a tool to cultivate and assess continuous improvement,” Taylor said.

His research takes a deep dive into higher ed institutions that are working to improve their student success outcomes. Institutions adopting the Guided Pathways model are examples. Guided Pathways is a movement that seeks to streamline a student’s journey through college by providing structured choices, advising support and clear learning outcomes. It is based on four pillars: create clear curricular pathways to employment and further education; help students choose and enter their pathways; help students stay on their paths; and ensure that learning is occurring by assessing against intentional outcomes.

A diversity of colleges and universities will be examined in Taylor’s research that gets fully underway this fall.

“We are looking at institutions sponsored by the Gates Foundation that have already completed cycles of transformation and change, with the objective of obtaining a better grasp on their success,” Taylor said.

But true and accurate assessment is more difficult than one might expect, according to Taylor.

“A lot of colleges and universities mean well in their efforts to improve student success,” Taylor said. “Many efforts break down, however, as they are being implemented.

We are learning that we need a broader, more consistent implementation approach that is replicable and evaluable. My research is on how programs work that are successful and how they are sustained in terms of institutional culture, administration and in other factors that are critical to programmatic success.”

Taylor adds that this research also is timely in that it addresses a number of critical areas important to improving student success and closing racial and other equity gaps in higher education.

Taylor notes Auburn is not formally participating in the Guided Pathways approach; however, data and information being gathered and discovered in this research are being implemented at Auburn.

“Many of my students in the HiED program are Auburn employees working on graduate degrees,” Taylor said. “They are already employed across the university, many in areas focused on student success and advising, and are taking this information and implementing it in their work.”

It is Auburn’s mission to improve lives through innovative teaching, research and service. Taylor said his research aligns with that mission in two ways: First, improving students’ post-secondary experiences and outcomes can lead to improving the lives of students, their families and their communities. Second, student success work expressly focused on equity requires critical, innovative research to disrupt the current and historical systems of oppression that have produced disparate post-secondary experiences and outcomes for racially and otherwise minoritized students.

“This project is anticipated to take place over 18 months,” Taylor said. “It involves archival work, interviews, focus groups and conversations with people within each institution.”

Taylor described his expected project outcomes as follows

Insights from this project will contribute to ongoing efforts at Lumina to improve the quality learning clear pathways to credentials especially for racially minoritized students. Overall, this project will yield key insights for the continued support of institutions adopting Guided Pathways and other student success frameworks, in efforts to address issues of quality and persistent racial disparities. To address gaps in collective understandings of the student success landscape, this project is focused on addressing three specific tasks: