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Revamping student services requires a change in campus culture

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Chioma Heim, an achievement coach at Central New Mexico Community College (CNM), assists a student.

Photo: CNM

​An initiative at Central New Mexico Community College (CNM) is not only giving students easier access to services; it’s shifting the culture of the college.

CNM Connect offers the college’s 30,000 students access to achievement coaches, financial coaching, study skills workshops, free tax preparations and more in one location. It “fosters student success in a holistic way,” according to its mission, and helps give students a feeling of community from their first day on campus.

“It’s the front door of our college,” said CNM President Katharine Winograd.

Investing in student success

The initiative began in 2006 as the CNM Center for Working Families. The center offered bundled services to the college’s neediest students. When Winograd became president, the first thing she discussed with the college’s board of trustees was expanding the small-scale initiative.

“I wanted the board to see this as an investment, and I made a promise that we’d see a return on investment within a two-year time frame,” Winograd said.

The college received significant financial support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Kresge Foundation for the expansion.

The center re-launched in 2011 under the name CNM Connect, with locations on all campuses and expanded services.

Coaching to success

There’s a constant stream of students at CNM Connect centers. In 2012, nearly 6,500 students used Connect services, and that number is growing. Some drop in to pick up scholarship applications. Others need help balancing their checkbook. Lines have already formed for the free tax preparation services. And many students come to visit achievement coaches.

While a goal of the college is to have students complete in two years, achievement coaches help students figure out what the students’ goals are, said CNM Connect Executive Director Ann Lyn Hall. The coaches not only help them determine what classes to take, but also the potential consequences of dropping a class or enrolling part time instead of full time. 

“The coaches help put all the pieces together so the student can make a choice that’s right for them,” Hall said.

Having a coach also gives students a strong connection to someone at the college who they can turn to when problems arise.

With all the services, Winograd has already made good on her promise to the board.

First-time students who accessed CNM Connect in fall 2011 had a retainment rate of about 80 percent, compared to 72 percent for those who didn’t use the services. Of the non-first-time students who used the services in fall 2011, 79 percent returned in spring 2012, compared to a 67-percent rate for those who didn’t access the services.

In the future, the college will create a virtual CNM Connect to reach students who rely more on distance learning.

Shifting the culture

To make CNM Connect a success required a culture change at the college. Staff members in different student services departments and the information they provided were siloed. For example, financial aid staff could only answer financial aid questions. It was a problem because when students interact with college staff, “they don’t see titles, they see representatives,” Hall said.

The college nixed the silos and gave staff more flexibility and space to answer a broader spectrum of questions. They also received additional training. The college gave them more access to information on the computer system, as well, so they could see more than just their department’s screen.

The shift is working according to the plan. Staff members have embraced the change and want to share their knowledge.

“To shift culture takes time and energy, but to shift it so your outcomes change is really phenomenal,” Hall said.

Faculty, too, appreciate the Connect model. Because it serves as a “clearinghouse” for resources, instructors have a place to direct students who have questions.

Several colleges from around the country have met with CNM about implementing similar models. It can be done with little funding by reallocating staff positions, according to Winograd. As for the time investment, creating a culture of student success is worth it, she said.

“It really feels like a campus where people care about each other and take care of each other,” Winograd said.

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