A Human-Centric View of Higher Education’s Role in Student Success
Dr. Kim Poast, Chief Student Success & Academic Affairs Officer at Colorado Department of Higher Education (CDHE) shares why community colleges are great at adapting, student agency and transition must continue to be a focus of higher education, and why we would be wise to take heed of the opportunity the pandemic has presented.
Adaptability Is a Powerful Advantage
Dr. Kim Poast has an interesting background. She began her career in social work and counseling before moving to academic affairs. Her social services roots translated into a deep understanding of what levers can be pulled to help students excel and which barriers prevent people from moving forward.
“My former boss, Dr. Kim Hunter-Reed, used to say all the time, ‘You cannot be what you cannot see.’ Sometimes the key to accessing higher education is the ability to see yourself there.”
When Dr. Poast first made her transition from casework to higher education, she worked at the Community College of Denver, which shares a campus with a four-year institution and a graduate institution. In a unique environment where students had an opportunity to literally see the path to the next step in their academic journey not only reinforced her boss’s motto; it brought to light an advantage many community colleges can offer their students.
“In some ways, my background in foster care and working with youth came into play in the jobs that I had there, because often what was required was a kind of case management or level of individual attention to a student’s needs to connect them with the right resources.
“I think community colleges have done some things very well. They were the first to recognize the challenge of first-generation students. They put a label to that demographic and understood the differences in how they navigate college. And frankly, community colleges were the first to respond to equity imperatives. The flexibility that comes from working with small budgets and fewer resources has proven to be an advantage at times.”
Easing the Transition Must Be a Priority
“I was a first-generation student from a low-income family. I had to navigate transitioning from high school, where I knew all of my friends and the systems and processes. I’ll never forget my first day wandering around campus. I was approached by our campus pastor at the time—and this was in the eighties. So our campus pastor was wearing a poncho and Birkenstocks. He came up to me and said, ‘You look lost.’
“And I said, ‘I am. I don’t know where I’m going in terms of the buildings, but I also don’t know where I’m going in terms of how to do this.’”
This personal experience has fueled a passion for finding better ways to prepare kids for a future in higher education. Dr. Poast believes that a student’s belief that they belong at college is where a successful journey begins.
“There’s a lot we can do, and a lot we have done over the last several years in terms of easing that transition from K12 into higher education. We need to keep in mind that student journeys may differ from one another, but continuing education is a must. Some kids need access to early rigorous coursework while they’re still in high school. Others need access to internships and apprenticeships while they’re still in high school. They need work-based experiences to give them learning opportunities that are different than standard coursework.
“There’s also a large role for intentional advising and partnering with higher education institutions in their neighborhood to aid in a seamless transition between K-12 and higher ed. And there’s a great deal to be said for just getting kids onto campus to see themselves in that space.
“Higher education is not a widget maker. It’s a human profession. It is a place in which you have to be able to connect with a human being to be successful and make the most of what that journey looks like for you.”
Students Deserve More Agency
Anyone who has transferred from a two-year community college to a four-year institution probably has a few horror stories to share. Even same-state institutions often refuse to recognize classes that carry the same title, description, and even instructor as comparable four-year institutions.
“The issues around transfer drive me crazy. I’ve been in rooms with faculty members who have said that my English class is better than XYZ English class, even though it’s the same title, the same numbering, etc. Thankfully, we have guaranteed transfer across the state.
“I think we need to get past the mentality that one class is better than another because of a professor’s prestige. We should be looking at whether the student learned key competencies in the class and acknowledge that achievement. All learning counts wherever it comes from.”
Because of this belief, Dr. Poast has worked on legislation to accept work-based learning for college credit. A lot of people in the military learn skills that transfer to life after the military. Aligning these skills with college credit helps people see higher education as something attainable.
“For me, it’s about the students being able to see their path and how to get there without roadblocks along the way.”
Don’t Miss This Opportunity for Positive Change
For many years, some educators have been vocal opponents of online learning. They felt the education was inferior and a student could not learn as well in that environment. During the COVID crisis, we have learned that online instruction should not look like in-person instruction. How we deliver content and connect with students must change.
“The COVID crisis created enormous challenges for us, but it has also created a tremendous opportunity to leverage technology in a much different way. Bad teachers are bad teachers wherever they sit. If you were a terrible teacher in the classroom, it’s not likely that you’re going to be a fantastic teacher online and vice versa.
“I think educational technology and instructional design were always a piece of the puzzle that sat in the outskirts of higher education. When we came into the COVID crisis, those offices just exploded in terms of what was required and needed from them.”
While not all students adapt well to online learning, and many miss the college environment’s social atmosphere, professors are adapting to the remote learning challenge and seeing success. Some students who would have dropped out were able to extend their education with the flexibility to adjust their learning schedule to care for children or infirm parents. Offering more options and flexibility to prospective students is an excellent thing.
“If we don’t come out of this crisis more technologically savvy—more intentional about how we use technology and leverage it as a tool to scale—I think we’ll have missed a huge opportunity.”