It is with great pleasure that we introduce Dr. Katie Dawson, the Assistant Vice President for Academic Innovation and Learning at the University of Louisiana. Dr. Dawson’s extensive experience spans both on-campus and state-level systems within Louisiana, making her a valuable source of insights. Her expertise in re-enrollment and support strategies for students who have temporarily halted their education is invaluable, offering a roadmap for their successful return and contribution to the state. Her passion for innovation and deep understanding of student support systems align seamlessly with the data-driven approach emphasized by myFootpath. 

Dr. Dawson is deeply passionate about the subject matter at hand. In Louisiana, she has been instrumental in implementing the Compete Louisiana program, designed to re-engage adults who possess some college experience but lack a completed bachelor’s degree. Within this initiative, Dr. Dawson’s success coaches play a pivotal role in collaboratively charting personalized pathways for these students’ return to higher education.

A fundamental aspect of success lies in comprehending the unique characteristics of your student population. In the context of Compete Louisiana, these individuals typically boast 60 to 70 credit hours when considering their return, often juggling full-time employment, familial obligations, and community responsibilities. Dr. Dawson’s profound understanding of the demographic is central to guiding them forward.

When considering the broader context of adult students, it becomes evident that four distinct barriers to reentry persist among this demographic. What has notably intrigued Dr. Dawson during her research and engagement with this program is the observation that the measures taken to address the challenges faced by returning adults can also have positive implications for traditional students.

Katie: The first barrier I’d like to discuss today is what we call “dispositional barriers.” These are internal obstacles that reside within the student themselves, primarily tied to their perceived competence level and self-efficacy. Stop-out students often carry a history of attempting to return to education, only to fall short of earning a bachelor’s degree. Within them, a lingering seed of doubt persists, questioning whether this time will be any different. As practitioners, recognizing and comprehending these dispositional barriers is crucial. By actively working to bolster the confidence of these students throughout their academic journey, we can significantly improve our chances of retaining them.

The second type of barrier that we typically encounter is what we call “situational barriers.” These barriers encompass a wide spectrum of life events, ranging from joyous occasions like marriages, the arrival of new babies, and landing new jobs, to more challenging experiences such as job losses, bereavement, and illnesses. In these instances, as an institution, there may not be much we can do to prevent these life circumstances from occurring in our students’ lives. However, what we can control are the processes and policies we have in place to support students when life events become barriers to their education.

Gerry: Thank you so much, Katie. One of the things I’m hearing is that your first two barriers are focused on finding compassion for your students, understanding their circumstances, and then finding ways to address those concerns as an institution. It’s a pretty complex system that you’re trying to juggle. I know from a state institution and community college perspective, we often struggle to know how to address all of these different barriers. When we don’t have a lot of time or staff, where would you recommend we prioritize our efforts?

Katie: For me, it always starts with relationship building. You have to reestablish that relationship with the student and regain their trust, being upfront when you don’t have all the answers or when the school is still working to address structural problems. What I tell my team all the time is that we’re in the business of setting expectations. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be difficulty, but it means that you have somebody who’s going to stick with you and help you navigate that difficulty as you move forward.

Gerry: It seems that your leadership is instrumental in guiding the various staff members who interact with re-enrolled students across different services. Effective communication of this message is crucial.

Katie: Absolutely. I’m very lucky to be one of many great leaders within our system who have their eye on the prize of student success and student engagement. And so I think that if we work together, which we’ll talk about in a little bit, there’s a lot more that we can accomplish than just working as a team of one.

The third type of barrier I want to discuss is what we call “institutional barriers.” It might sound a bit strange to say that I have a favorite type of barrier, but the reason I appreciate institutional barriers is that they fall within our control to change. These barriers are essentially obstacles that we, in higher education, often unwittingly create, making it more challenging for students to return.

The fourth barrier we often encounter is technology. The pandemic emphasized disparities in tech access, from internet infrastructure to hardware for online learning. Many adult students opt for online formats due to flexibility and affordability. We must prioritize digital literacy support, as some students may be entirely new to online courses. This means comprehensive orientations, early skill assessments, and resource assistance are crucial, even for seemingly basic digital skills.

Gerry: With all these barriers, you have a pathway that you can guide people through what we need to keep in mind.

Katie: I have some guiding principles that can frame our work and ensure that student success and access remain at the forefront of our efforts. Earlier this summer, my leadership team asked if there’s a universal process that all institutions should follow to efficiently move students through and prioritize their needs. I pondered this question and explored various models. However, the reality is that there’s no quick and easy fix for these challenges. If such a solution existed, it would already be widely known. I believe in the strength of diversity in our approaches to working with students because each student group is unique, and you are best equipped to engage them effectively.

Eager to learn more about the barriers holding back stop-outs? Watch the full recording for webinar 2 to dive deeper into the strategies universities can adopt to dismantle these barriers and guide students toward graduation.