Weber State University’s (Ogden, UT) Wildcat Scholars program was named a recipient of the 2022 Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities Beacon Award for Excellence in Student Achievement and Success. The program has been operating since 2016, with support over the past four and a half years from the Department of Education Title 3 Strengthening Institutional Programs grant. We review the program’s origins, design and expansion, assessment, and institutionalization.
In August 2016, 12 high school graduates who had applied to WSU but had yet to enroll were invited to participate in a pilot program. The program offered a small scholarship, required enrollment in a newly designed first-year seminar course titled “Cultivating Your Future,” and bestowed the title of a “Wildcat Scholar.” The program targeted non-traditionally college-bound (low-income, ethnic minority, first-generation) students who had been placed into developmental math. The Utah System of Higher Education (USHE) funded the pilot to seed innovative initiatives to improve persistence and retention. It was the first time the university considered offering a coordinated and integrated social, academic and co-curricular credit-bearing program for students who would typically have low persistence and retention rates.
The 12 Wildcat Scholars were compared to a matched group of 16 students, who were invited but declined to participate. The Wildcat Scholars demonstrated higher academic achievements and student success on a variety of measures, including first-semester GPA (2.63 vs. 1.84), fall-to-spring persistence (100% vs. 61%), and fall-to-fall retention rate (67% vs. 44%). The program’s focus on students’ assets instead of their deficits and recognition of their potential proved influential in improving their academic achievement and success. A second year (Fall 2017) of the program was run similarly, but this time with institutional funding for 14 students, with similar outcomes. No additional scholarships beyond Pell could be given, but a parking pass and free textbooks were offered.
Program Design and Expansion
The small pilot program has grown into a significant program that has enrolled 590 students between Fall 2018 and Fall 2022. We refocused the program on enrolling students placed in developmental mathematics and English, as these students were the least likely to succeed academically. As a group, they are disproportionately high in students reporting to be low-income, ethnic-minority, and first-generation and tend to have low first-semester GPAs and poor retention rates.
The grant allowed the hiring of three dedicated staff to provide leadership and management, offer holistic advising, and coordinate student co-curricular and career engagement. Together, the Wildcat Scholars team delivers the critical elements for a comprehensive set of student services to students based on national best practices (Koch & Gardner, 2017). It also enabled an expansion of the program’s curriculum to support student momentum (Jenkins & Bailey, 2016) by requiring full-time student status and minimizing time and money spent enrolling in developmental classes by creating co-requisite classes (Complete College America, 2021). The curriculum was also strengthened to promote students’ academic mindset, a collection of non-cognitive skills, beliefs, and behaviors that underlie students’ identities as engaged, self-regulated learners who can overcome challenges or setbacks (Broda et al., 2018; Han et al., 2017; Yeager et al., 2016). The curriculum was further organized to encourage students’ belonging and engagement by creating cohorts in flexibly scheduled learning communities. Finally, it accommodated student needs by offering a Fall or Spring program beginning.
In their first semester, students enroll in a minimum of 12-13 credits in a learning community cohort of about 20 students. Their classes include a General Education first-year seminar course addressing the history and culture of higher education, which has a community-engaged learning component (3 credits). They are also enrolled in a co-requisite English class (6 credits), which combines the credit-bearing first composition course requirement with developmental supports delivered just in time. Some student cohorts enrolled in a college transition First-Year Experience course (3 credits) emphasizing study skills, note taking, time management, interpersonal communication, career exploration, and related topics. Alternatively, other cohorts enrolled in a life design course, Design Your Weber (2 credits), which is based on Stanford University’s life design approach (Burnett & Evans, 2016). Finally, an additional one-credit Math ALEKS prep class was recently added to support student placement in the co-requisite Math class in the spring semester.
Students are no longer placed in learning communities in their second semester but enroll in a core set of common courses of a minimum of 13 credit hours. They enroll in a co-requisite Math class (6 credits) that combines a credit-bearing Quantitative Literacy class with developmental supports delivered just in time. They also enroll in a combined English and Library class (4 credits), allowing students to simultaneously complete the university Composition and Information Literacy requirements. Finally, a Psychology class (3 credits) designed for Wildcat Scholars is an applied emerging adulthood course based on the life-design approach established in the first semester.
Additionally, the grant supported Inclusive Excellence training for all instructors teaching in the Wildcat Scholars program. The training combines self-paced modules and in-person (or virtual) retreats, with keynote presentations from national figures, including Dr. Andrew Koch (John Gardner Institute), Dr. Milagros Castillo-Montoya (UConn), and Dr. Chandani Patel (NYU). The retreats include panels of Wildcat Scholar students and seasoned instructors sharing their experiences and opportunities for faculty in learning communities to collaborate.
Assessment and Innovation
Central to the goals of the Wildcat Scholars program is to promote student success, as demonstrated by students’ first-year fall-to-spring persistence and first-to-second fall retention rates. Since receiving the grant, each of the four fall cohorts of Wildcat Scholars has shown higher persistence and retention rates than developmental math and English students (DD) and all first-year students (Overall). The average difference between the WS and DD groups in persistence (11.0%) and retention (14.8%) was substantial. The WS group also had higher persistence (4.3%) and retention (7.1%) rates than all students, which has been a powerful statement about these students’ success. Narratives from Wildcat Scholars about how the program supported their persistence and retention are available on the program website (http://weber.edu/wildcatscholars).
The Wildcat Scholars’ success comes from a curriculum designed to challenge and support them. First and foremost, the curriculum is designed to challenge students to complete the university composition (COMP), quantitative literacy (QL), and information literacy (IL) requirements in their first year. The requirements were completed by 37% of Wildcat scholars in the first year, with most others completing in year 2. These gateway requirements are a significant hurdle to student success for developmentally placed students, who would otherwise require three or four semesters to complete all developmental pathways. But the Wildcat Scholar program’s collaboration with the various academic departments and programs to create pilot co-requisite and combination classes has fundamentally altered the pathways for all students. The co-requisite Math and English classes have lower overall DFWI rates compared to the sequence of courses they are replacing, particularly for Hispanic students, providing evidence of the importance of the courses in addressing institutional inequity issues. In the five years before the program (Fall 2011 – Spring 2016), developmental math and English students had a persistence rate of 40.68% negatively impacting the overall persistence rate (R2 = .48). In the five subsequent years (Fall 2016 – Spring 2020), the impact was no longer significant, with a 48.1% persistence rate. The data document the Wildcat Scholars program’s impact on a critical student success challenge that may extend beyond those immediately served by the program.
Additionally, the curriculum supports students by enhancing their academic mindset. All Wildcat scholars complete coursework designed to promote an academic mindset, and the outcomes are carefully reviewed each year based on end-of-year student self-assessments. In the last set of assessments, students rated their growth as 7.48 out of 10, with a majority reporting feeling greatly supported by their professors, advisors, and peers and that the learning community increased their sense of belonging at the university. Additionally, a mindset survey delivered each fall to a sample of first-year students since 2019 found that significantly more Wildcat Scholars scored above the mean than developmental English and math-placed students (Huntington et al. 2021).
The Wildcat Scholars program Dept. of Ed SIP funding ends October 2023. The grant is not renewable by design, so solutions motivating the grant would be institutionalized by implementing the critical features of the grant. Plans have been laid for the program’s legacy, which was to create a more “student-ready” institution by “meeting students where they are.” These outcomes are part of the institutional strategic vision and plan for improving retention and completion. The institutional vision and plans align well with many features of the Wildcat Scholars program that are being institutionalized, which we outline below.
Amsel, E., Burr, J., Fox, K., & Sands, S. (2022, February 12). FAST Start: A pilot program promoting success for first-year students. Paper presented at the 41st Annual Conference on The First-Year Experience.
Broda, J., Yun, J., Schneider, B., & Yeager, D., Walton, G. M., & Diemer, M. (2018). Reducing inequality in academic success for incoming college students: A randomized trial of growth mindset and belonging interventions. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 11, 317-338. DOI: 10.1080/19345747.2018.1429037
Burnett, B., & Evans, D. (2016). Designing your life: How to build a well-lived, joyful life. New York; Knopf.
Complete College America. No Room for Doubt: Moving Corequisite Support from Idea to Imperative (2021). Http://completecollege.org/noroomfordoubt
Han, C., Farruggia, S.P., Moss, TP. (2017). effects of academic mindsets on college students’ achievement and retention. Journal of College Student Development, 58, 1119-1134. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.2017.0089
Huntington, A., Amsel, E., Santana, I., & Tello K. (2021. February 15). Disruptive Innovation:Â The Institutional Impact of a Targeted First-Year Program. Virtual paper presented at the 40th Annual Conference on The First-Year Experience.
Jenkins, D., & Bailey, T. (2017). Early momentum metrics: Why they matter for college improvement (CCRC Brief No. 65). New York, NY: Columbia University, Teachers College, Community College Research Center. https://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/media/k2/attachments/early-momentum-metrics-college-improvement.pdf
Koch, A., & Gardner, J. (2017). Transforming the “real first-year experience”: The case for and approaches to improving gateway courses. In R. Feldman (Ed.), The first year of college: Research, theory, and practice on improving the student experience and increasing retention. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Yeager, D. S., Walton, G. M., Brady, S. T., Akcinar, E. N., Paunesku, D., Keane, L. â¦ & Dweck, C. S. (2016). Teaching a lay theory before college narrows achievement gaps at scale. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113, E3341-E3348. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1524360113
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