Improve Persistence and Graduation Rates in Higher Ed:

Changing Higher Ed Podcast 097 with host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Guest Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart

Table of Contents

Improve Persistence and Graduation Rates in Higher Ed

Higher education institutions continue to face change because of the turbulent global environment. However, many struggle with this transition because they are locked into traditions that no longer serve their institution, their students, or higher education in general.

One institution that is successfully adapting to meet students’ needs is Amarillo College, which is located in Amarillo, TX. President Russel Lowery-Hart shares insights into the processes and tactics he’s used to improve persistence and graduation rates during his 7-year tenure at Amarillo College. This college has seen an increase in the graduation rate go from 19% to over 60% and its persistence rate from 14% to 88%.

A Student-Focused Model

Higher education institutions spend millions of dollars trying to train each new class of students to adapt to the institution. However, Amarillo College has flipped this model by adapting to students’ needs. Lowery-Hart believes the foundation for this transformation involves understanding the students that the college is serving through listening to their needs and then building from that information. In other words, the campus’ commitment to loving the students for who they are / where they are for the improved performance.

The college uses a prototype of its typical student, named “Maria,” as a guide. To create this prototype, the institution used a variety of data to understand who the college’s typical student is. Initially, this data surprised Lowery-Hart and the college’s administration and faculty – they thought most students enrolled in the college were traditional students who were coming straight from high school. However, the data showed that the non-traditional student – typically a 25-year-old mother with 1.2 children who is working two part-time jobs – emerged as the average normed student at Amarillo College. However, the college had built its orientation and student experiences around the 18-year-old traditional student, which was now only 20% of the population.  

This primarily Hispanic-serving institution realized that it needed to pivot to serve students who were the same as Maria as well as the college’s community, instead of the traditional student that they assumed was enrolled. Additionally, the college’s student body is now the majority of color, as is most of the surrounding community. Therefore, the college needed to reflect the community it serves.

Addressing Student Needs

To transform the college, Lowery-Hart uses secret shoppers to help re-imagine the institution by assisting in writing the values of Amarillo College. These secret shoppers told the administration that to be successful, students needed life assistance, e.g., childcare, healthcare, food, housing, utility payments, transportation, and legal services, etc. These were the things affecting students’ classroom performance – not so much an inability with respect to doing the coursework.

Without addressing these barriers to learning, Amarillo College wasn’t going to succeed, no matter how active or applied the learning was, or how effective the instruction was. This required building a different type of institution for these students. Once Amarillo College got clear about this and made the changes, magic happened.

The college found the resources in the community, connected to them, and then connected students with the resources. For example, Amarillo College hired social workers and opened a robust social services connection to the community.

Mental Models and Change Management

Amarillo College’s efforts entailed a change management process using market research that required looking at mental models, structures, and processes. This proved to be a huge shift.

First, Amarillo College had to change its mental model because students told them the mental model was broken, so administrators learned what the right structures looked like. They explored organizations outside of higher education that are serving communities effectively. Some of the seminal things that helped the college adapt included:

  • Every employee (including faculty) went through poverty training. A significant number went on to become certified poverty coaches.
  • Deep data analysis gave information that backed up what students were saying. This data showed that 59% were housing insecure and 54% were food insecure.
  • A partnership also looked at students’ financial health. This analysis showed that students were one $88 emergency from dropping out.

This approach allows the institution’s staff to understand the students more deeply, and then to build appropriate structures and processes to support them. Amarillo College’s efforts go counter to many colleges and universities, which have structures that are so ingrained based on tradition that leaders don’t feel they can change them.

Lowery-Hart noted that higher education may be trying to protect something that is inherently broken, both in structures, outcomes, and finances. However, colleges and universities are doubling down on this model because it is known and has produced current leaders – and higher education projects that it will continue producing more leaders. Higher education often refuses to see or embrace what is happening on the outside – and even, in some cases, vilifying it as the reason why higher education is dying. Instead, colleges and universities should use it to transform.

Despite doubling down on “old” processes, the current environment shows that fewer leaders are being produced by traditional higher education. If colleges and universities are going to be here in the future, they will have to adopt and adapt. Unfortunately, bureaucracies are protecting against this adaption, which may mean that up to 50% of higher education institutions will cease to exist in 10-20 years. By letting go of tradition that is not rooted in students’ lived experiences and research, Amarillo College has learned that new traditions can be built.

Building Student-Centered Innovation

Amarillo College focused on what it could do to help current students, based on the profile of Maria. They could remove a life barrier through social services, and then it created an accelerated learning environment, which involves eight-week courses, tutoring, and no developmental education in a culture of caring.

While the college’s staff understood the why behind social services, they were surprised by the need for accelerated learning. However, the data showed that the college was losing students between weeks 9-12 of the 16-week terms – they were dropping out to take on extra shifts, childcare, or another barrier. Staff determined the shorter the time to a degree, the more likely “Maria” would finish it.

When all of these structural changes were put in place, their persistence and graduation rates went through the roof.

The culture of caring also caused Amarillo College’s staff to realize that they were penalizing students for being who they are. This included penalizing students for not understanding the college’s vernacular, structures, and processes. They also misjudged students as being less intelligent, when in fact these students are brilliant; they just don’t know the college’s processes. Therefore, the college had to build a culture of caring to help students, even as the college re-imagined these processes.

Previously, Amarillo College had been building processes and using technology to automate them, but they also had been removing themselves from the process. Students told Amarillo College that they needed the human element before they could engage the processes. They need to know that they are understood and can get help if the processes were overwhelming.

Now the college uses the values that the students wrote, values that defined the culture of caring. The institution incorporates these values in daily work, including hiring and evaluating using these values. This underscores the college’s innovative efforts – because every employee focuses on “loving students to success.” For example, when it comes to student aid, the college approaches students from a place of trust, instead of distrust. Providing support and love is not lowering the standard; it’s actually creating the foundation to raise standards and rigor.

Servant Leadership and Emotional Intelligence

During COVID’s period of uncertainty and adaptation, the college’s leaders realized that the institution needed to serve its students through every modality. The college realized that it could get students logged into the classroom but that also meant that some students had to come onto campus to do so. Lowery-Hart, being the servant leader he is, served in the role of greeting students in the library, taking their temperature at the main desk, and helping them log in. He also helped distribute food bags and gave out emergency aid. He said he learned so much during this time and that this period changed him.

The college leader said that the COVID-19 pandemic also provided a wake-up call in regard to Amarillo College’s transformational journey. When the institution received the CARES funds, it already had developed a robust social services foundation that was integrated into training, hiring, and early alert systems. Realizing that students’ financial needs were not monolithic and that the institution’s culture is committed to loving students to success, Amarillo College leaders wanted to understand how the pandemic was affecting the average student. They created an intake model that borrows from social service case management systems and then asked every student to do a self-assessment of what they were dealing with it. This information served as the basis for how the college distributed its CARES funds.

By using this model, Amarillo College was able to support students based on their individual situations, as opposed to using a mathematical model that was inherently inequitable. Lowery-Hart noted that what they learned from this model was a kick in the gut. They found that COVID had created a financial crisis that Amarillo College didn’t understand. The first iteration of the assessment identified more than 100 students who were homeless because of COVID. The most recent iteration of the survey identified another 99 students that weren’t homeless at the beginning of the semester but were now homeless in the middle of the term.

Previously, Amarillo College would have applied an old model to these students. The thinking would have been that these students who dropped out weren’t cut out for college because they weren’t academically prepared, didn’t know how to study, or were not serious about getting a degree. Now the college knows that students were at-risk for dropping out because they didn’t have a place to live. This allowed the college to activate its partnerships in the community and city, as well as the college’s emergency aid to connect these students to homes.

Lowery-Hart also has determined that students are not taking advantage of the system of tapping CARE funding. He notes that students want to be successful and are being honorable in how they tap these funds.

REP4 and Innovation

Amarillo College is part of REP4, which involves several higher education institutions that are focused on creating innovation. The college, along with the other members, is looking at who their students and communities are, and how the institutions can adapt to meet their needs.

These institutions’ leaders realize that the existing systems and bureaucracies are broken, so they must build rapid responses to current seismic environmental shifts through focusing on the student’s voice. Lowery-Hart believes that the higher education members involved in this innovative effort will offer some ideas to help other colleges and universities move forward in adapting to changing environments.

Three Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders and Boards

  • Each institution needs to define who their “Maria” is, and also who “Maria” is in their community who they are not serving. For many institutions, the student who is being recruited is not the student who lives in the community where the institution resides.
  • Once “Maria” is identified, institutions need to empower these students by determining how to change to serve her.
  • The college or university needs to build structures in relation to love for “Maria” students. If the work is devoid of relational advocacy, it doesn’t matter how great the structures are that are being built. Relationship, connection, and the personalization of the experience are critical to making the shift.


Dr. Drumm McNaughton provides strategic planning, implementation, and change management consulting for higher ed institutions. 

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