Building a Thriving Student Support Ecosystem
An Action Plan for Community Colleges
Community colleges have developed a variety of services to support their students’ success, but too often these offerings are siloed in different campus units, minimizing their impact. Over the past four years, Ithaka S+R has conducted IMLS-funded research to surface the most effective collaborative strategies to break down those siloes. This action plan summarizes best practices for faculty, librarians, administrators, and others as they implement these services. We hope that this action plan is used to further advocate for and build greater collaboration within an institution’s ecosystem to bolster student success.
These recommendations are a distillation of best practices from in-depth research conducted with community college support service providers over the past four years. The first phase of the initiative surveyed community college chief academic affairs and student affairs officers nationally on how their support services are organized, funded, and staffed, the challenges and constraints they routinely face, and opportunities for the future. The next phase of work included a series of interviews with key academic and student affairs leaders, faculty, library directors, and students, exploring organizational strategies to align supports with student needs, the immediate and anticipated impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on service provision, and the challenges associated with providing students with needed resources. Last year, we conducted a national survey of community college library directors to examine current service provision, the impact of COVID-19 on library programming, and how they are navigating change.
Following these phases of research and a series of webinars, convenings, and conversations, this fall we held an invitational workshop for research advisors, stakeholders from past research phases, and community college leaders. The goal was to review the initiative in its entirety and determine actionable recommendations for building a community college ecosystem through which libraries can lend greater support to advance student success.
Through our research, conversations, and workshops, we have developed these recommendations for actions libraries and their institutions can take to foster greater collaboration across campus units to more effectively provide student success services.
Assess how students currently use support services and resources, and determine how best to respond to unmet needs. To adequately provide resources and services, it is vital to understand students’ goals as well as the challenges they face both inside and outside the classroom. Collecting data on and assessing both students’ academic and basic needs will help to determine how best to allocate resources and services.
Share and discuss strategic plans regularly with other department partners. Lead with student learning objectives for collaboration, and share your updated strategic plan and other priorities to other directors and/or departmental-liaisons where there is regular collaboration. For instance, share the library’s strategic plan with IT, Student Affairs, the counseling center, and other units, to demonstrate library goals and impact and help provide opportunities towards greater collaboration.
Building buy in
Talk with faculty first. When making updates or changes to institutional ecosystems and structures, it is vital to incorporate the perspectives of the faculty and staff who will be implementing and impacted by these changes. Honoring these perspectives will help to mitigate expectations and facilitate action.
Negotiate and communicate across silos. This will help to determine how to best update service provision and organizational structures before enacting change. Expect stakeholders to bring many viewpoints to the discussion, especially when funding and budgets are a factor in these decisions. Listening to and understanding where everyone is coming from can help better determine which collaborative partnerships need to be in place before enacting changes.
Creating lasting partnerships
Collaboration is hard—create faculty or staff liaisons to more efficiently communicate between departments. When beginning or continuing a collaborative partnership, too many voices can lead to more challenges. To maximize collaborative relationships, consider designating a faculty liaison or creating a new role within the library, IT, counseling center, and others to support these relationships and coordinate communication more efficiently and effectively.
Prioritize collaboration over competition, and seek external relationships and resources. Oftentimes departments within the same college ecosystem compete for funding and supplies from the same pool of resources. Prioritizing collaborative relationships between silos can help to alleviate understaffing and resource constraints. Additionally, external community organizations such as the public library, may be able to support specific departments to better serve student needs while maximizing community impact.
Strengthening staff capacity
Help students help each other. Students create their own digital content everyday—treat students as experts and content creators of their own knowledge and experiences. Student employees can help bridge communication gaps with those seeking support, as well as provide additional staff capacity.
Provide space for professional development opportunities as technology changes. Post-pandemic, many different departments across the college ecosystem are struggling to fill necessary positions and close skill gaps. All the while, adapting to changing technology represents an extra hurdle to service provision. Provide professional development opportunities often to support knowledge gaps with these emerging technologies.
Calibrating for the student journey
Understand how students and faculty discover and use campus support services. How faculty navigate the college ecosystem is vastly different than how students interact with their college’s resources and services. Consumption patterns are changing—students may depend less on traditional communications methods like email or web pages, and may turn to other online apps for information on their institution or courses (i.e. Reddit, Discord, or TikTok).
Provide students with information in one identifiable place to help destigmatize asking for help. Too often students don’t know how to navigate the larger college ecosystem to track down what they need, and they may feel embarrassed to ask for help. This is a great opportunity to centralize holistic information for both academic and basic needs at libraries—a place students already see as a resource—where student information can be made highly visible.
Leveraging Technological Affordances
Think creatively about the kinds of devices students and faculty are using, and teach with technology that students will use beyond the classroom. Since the pandemic, technology needs have shifted for both faculty and students, and it is crucial to assess what devices and applications are currently being utilized. Students may be more apt to stream content and use various apps to learn (i.e. Discord or TikTok), whereas faculty may be unsure about how to most effectively utilize these new formats and need updated training.
Build collaborative relationships with IT departments to more effectively support library technology needs. As we saw over the pandemic, collaboration between libraries and IT departments can help provide students and faculty with the physical devices and applications they need, as well as the instructional support to use and incorporate them into pedagogy. However, IT departments may not know how to support libraries with new technology-based programming. Foster conversations to discover opportunities to share capacity and resources to help address student and faculty technology needs.
We thank our external advising committee for their expert guidance and support throughout the project, in particular for providing feedback on all past project outputs, including this action plan.
- Braddlee, Former Dean of Learning and Technology Resources and Professor, Northern Virginia Community College
- Rosemary A. Costigan, Vice President for Academic Affairs, Community College of Rhode Island
- Karen Reilly, Dean of for the School of Business and Advanced Technology, Southwestern Michigan
- Karen A. Stout, President and CEO, Achieving the Dream
We are immensely grateful to Mark McBride, Kimberly Lutz, Roger Schonfeld, and Danielle Cooper for their input on this report and throughout the project. This project would not be possible without their substantive contributions. Additionally, we thank Nicole Betancourt, Christine-Wolff Eisenberg, and Rebecca Springer for their past input to this project.
The views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.