October 13, 2016 | Matt Kucinski


Calvin College launched the Center for Student Success this fall, one of the college's cross-divisional efforts focused on student success.

“If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.”

Those words were penned by Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company.

And the spirit of that statement is driving Calvin’s continued focus on the success of its students.

Gaining a deeper understanding

In the summer of 2015, Provost Cheryl Brandsen appointed Todd Dornbos to be the new director of student retention and first year initiatives, charging him with leading a cross-divisional effort focused on student success.

“If we accept a student here we are saying to that student, ‘we think you can be successful here, and we are going to invest in your success,’” said Brandsen.

And so over the past year, Dornbos and the Retention Task Force made significant gains in understanding first-year students and their likelihood for success at Calvin, reviewed the current retention and success efforts employed at the college, and studied contemporary best practices.

Strengthening established strategies

Findings suggest the college already exercises many of the “best practice” retention tactics. But, how these strategies are resourced or implemented needed further review in order to maximize the likelihood of students being successful.

“Student support staff have worked well together for years, across various departments and programs,” said Dornbos, “but we didn’t have the systems in place to coordinate our work.”

So the Retention Task Force proposed a plan to resource initiatives designed to organize and strengthen the college’s foundational support systems and practices. And this work is already being implemented.

Delivering coordinated care

One such example this fall is the launching of the Center for Student Success, a repurposing of what was formerly known as Academic Services. Leaders say the center will coordinate student care and support, much like one would experience in the healthcare industry, with a student having a primary care provider (Student Success Specialist, or S3) with support from other college experts (counselors, advisers, etc.) who can share information with one another through interaction with an information system.  The primary S3 team currently includes resident directors, academic counselors, and other professional advisors. The result? Holistic and coordinated care for students.

“[Before the new system] It could be possible for more than one staff member to have contact with a student about similar issues, and neither staff member would have known the other was involved. Or we would be operating with limited information,” said Tom Steenwyk, registrar at Calvin. “So I expect that the assigned care providers will have a more complete understanding of each of the students we work with.”

“We are getting information from multiple sources in real time to help students. It’s preventative care,” said Brandsen.

“One of the things we are doing is strengthening the care net. Students in the past who may not have vocalized their needs or issues will hopefully be identified to staff much earlier, which will give us additional time to help them get back on track” said Dornbos. “We’re making sure we are there for the right students at the right time, and we are anticipating needs a student might have before he or she is requesting it.”

Taking a comprehensive approach

Beyond the new coordinated-care model that the Center for Student Success is leading, the college is also investing in faculty development, in research and analyses of retention data, in bolstering the effectiveness of all first-year initiatives, and in evaluating and communicating the success of each of these initiatives. It’s an ongoing project with implementation happening at various stages over the next few years.

In the end, leaders say all of these efforts are encouraging the community to work together in helping students be successful.

“We are all on the same team,” said Dornbos. “And now that we are supporting that idea structurally, we can share best practices with each other, better consult with one another, and work more effectively across the administrative boundaries, which in the end provides a better experience for students.”

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