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A Coordinated Culture of Care

Houston colleges and universities collaborate for student success

By Ben Dedman

September 20, 2021

In an ideal world, every college student would take exactly the number of courses required for their degree. Beyond that, with a few exceptions, each extra course wastes time, costs money, and makes it less likely the student will persist to graduation.

“I can recall a student who accumulated well over a hundred credit hours,” says Shantay Grays, vice chancellor of student services at Houston Community College (HCC). Without a clear academic pathway, the student jumped from courses in HVAC repair, to cosmetology, to the core curriculum. In some cases, the student failed and retook the same course multiple times.

“When we examined the possibility of issuing the student some type of credential, we couldn’t,” Grays says. “We were doing a disservice to our student.”

In 2014, the University of Houston (UH) and Stan Jones and Tom Sugar from Complete College America invited administrators from colleges and universities across the Houston metropolitan area to a summit. Together, they took a deep dive into student success data, identifying several barriers that slowed students’ progress, racked up their student debt, and kept them from graduating.

“Houston was the fourth largest metropolitan area in the United States, with hundreds of thousands of college students,” says Paula Short, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at UH. But when the administrators compared graduation rates of major metropolitan areas, Houston’s colleges and universities ranked thirty-fourth. “That was a daunting number,” Short says.

The colleges and universities formed Houston Guided Pathways to Success (GPS), a consortium that now includes six universities and seven community colleges. All Houston GPS members serve a majority-minority student population, and several are Hispanic-Serving Institutions or Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

“Houston and the Gulf Coast region have a very diverse population based on socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, gender, and status as first-generation college students,” says Nicole McDonald, assistant vice provost for student success at UH and the coordinator of Houston GPS. “This diversity is really at the core of our work.”

When a college or university joins Houston GPS, the president or chancellor signs a pledge to implement or strengthen a set of comprehensive, integrated, evidence-based strategies:

  • Proactive advising, enabled by technology, that helps students make informed choices about career paths, majors, and courses
  • Meta-majors and degree maps that students follow throughout their college experience, and that include clusters of disciplines that share the same foundational courses, minimizing lost credits for students who switch majors
  • Corequisite models for developmental courses, ensuring students finish gateway math, science, and English courses in their first year
  • Core curriculum math courses that are aligned with students’ majors, scaffolding learning for later courses
  • Technology that includes real-time degree planning, proactive advising, and tracking and sharing data about students’ degree plans and success as part of a coordinated network of support
  • Structured schedules that help students—especially those with work and family responsibilities—take courses at convenient times

These strategies were developed by task forces, made up of representatives from Houston GPS member campuses, that reviewed relevant research and examined student success data. The task forces continue to support targeted frameworks that help campuses identify and address their most urgent needs. Additionally, a team of experts at each campus helps facilitate the planning, implementation, and scaling of each strategy on their campus.

“It’s not enough to just recognize our diversity,” says Michelle Moosally, associate professor of English and associate vice president of planning and curriculum at the University of Houston–Downtown. “We have to take action on our principles to help those diverse populations.”

Holistic Advising at Houston Community College

After diving into student success data from HCC’s twenty-one campuses, administrators identified several student success barriers: many students took too long to declare a major, they sometimes enrolled in courses with no connection to their degree, and they accumulated alarming amounts of debt.

“Most of our students were self-advising,” says JoEllen Price, executive director of financial aid at HCC. Following a framework developed by the Houston GPS task force on proactive advising, HCC is bringing frontline staff—academic advisors, student affairs staff, financial aid officers, and information technology experts—together to ensure all students have the information they need to complete their degrees on time and at low cost.

A revised onboarding process for new students focuses on career exploration to help students declare a major as soon as they enroll. Students who plan to transfer to a four-year institution meet with advisors from a Houston GPS partner university, helping them make informed choices to prepare for a bachelor’s degree.

Leveraging a new Financial Aid Course Alert process in the student information system, academic advisors create degree pathways for each student and track their progress each semester. Advising managers receive daily reports that identify any students enrolled in courses that don’t count toward their degrees. The students get automated emails, texts, and phone calls, and academic advisors quickly follow up to help students enroll in the correct courses.

“This is a wraparound, intentionally holistic process,” says Janina Arrington, director of academic advising at HCC. As a result, more students are graduating on time. “Our students are now on the right path.”

The new Financial Aid Course Alert also removes financial aid for courses that don’t advance students toward their degree and sends a message to the student, financial aid officers, and academic advisors.

“Students who receive Pell Grants or federal student loans tend to be lower income,” Price says. “We don’t want them to use up their aid at a community college; they should have funding to progress toward a bachelor’s degree.”

Before these new advising systems were in place, HCC students borrowed more than $80 million annually. After the first year of proactive advising, student borrowing decreased to $66 million. Last year, it dropped to $46 million.

The collaboration fostered by Houston GPS has broken down silos across HCC campuses and between Houston-area institutions. Advising summits, held several times a year, bring HCC faculty and advisors together to discuss students’ degree pathways, while an ongoing training academy supports academic and financial aid advisors. HCC faculty and advisors also meet regularly with colleagues at four-year institutions to discuss articulation agreements and clarify requirements for students who expect to transfer.

“This is a community of practice,” Grays says. “The biggest challenge, particularly for community colleges, is creating access for marginalized communities of color. Doing this work in partnership with four-year institutions has opened the door of possibility for our students.”

Corequisite Math Courses at the University of Houston–Downtown

Situated at the center of the metropolitan area, UHD is a commuter university with a long history of promoting access for community college transfer students. Through Houston GPS, UHD has implemented new strategies such as degree maps, meta-majors, and holistic advising.

But as UHD administrators looked at their student success data, one challenge became a clear priority: many students were struggling to pass developmental and introductory courses in math and English.

Incoming students who scored below a certain threshold on SATs or other entrance exams enrolled in sixteen-week developmental English or math courses, which they had to pass before taking for-credit courses in those disciplines. In these kinds of prerequisite models of developmental courses, students can struggle to pass their classes, taking one or two years to earn their first college credits. “That can be demoralizing,” says Timothy Redl, professor and assistant chair of mathematics.

In fall 2014, the UHD math department introduced an accelerated model of corequisite courses. Students take an eight-week developmental math course followed by an eight-week, three-credit math course, with supplemental instruction and additional tutoring provided by the university’s tutoring center. Since 2018, when the Texas legislature passed House Bill 2223 requiring all public colleges and universities to transition a corequisite model for developmental courses, UHD has introduced a similar model for English developmental and first-semester composition courses.

In spring 2021, the first semester in which all developmental students enrolled in a corequisite model, 70 percent of students earned an A, B, or C, a significantly higher rate than in the previous developmental model.

Students’ success in their first courses improves their confidence, setting them up for success in their majors. “The literature shows that students are more likely to persist if they can earn college credits in their first semester,” says Ermelinda DeLaVina, associate dean of the College of Science and Technology.

Math faculty redesigned the core math courses to offer four options that align with students’ prospective meta-majors: College Algebra for STEM majors, Business Math for business majors, Contemporary Math for humanities majors, and Statistics Literacy for social science majors. Faculty also redesigned the developmental courses to include topics and assignments aligned with students’ prospective majors. Whether students take these core curriculum courses through the corequisite accelerated model or a sixteen-week course, they complete many of the same assessments and take the same final exam. “They’re meeting the same expectations across all sections of the courses,” DeLaVina says.

The new corequisite model, as well as other Houston GPS strategies, has had a significant impact on UHD student success. Six-year graduation rates have increased by ten percentage points, students are taking fewer courses to graduate, and they are completing more credits in their first year at the institution.

Despite these improvements, UHD advisors were still concerned that some students were being placed in developmental courses even if they were capable of taking college-level courses. “We know students have strengths, but they’re not easily captured in global metrics that are often used for admissions, like GPA or test scores,” Moosally says.

In fall 2021, UHD implemented a new model that uses “multiple measures” to place students in developmental or core math and English courses. If a new student does not pass the entrance exams necessary to enroll in college-level math or English courses, an advisor searches their high school transcript for coursework that could satisfy the developmental requirement. Students who earned a C or better in Algebra 2 and one of their biology, chemistry, or physics courses in high school do not need to enroll in developmental math, and students can skip developmental English if they earned a C or better in their junior and senior English classes as well as US history and government classes.

Already, hundreds of students have satisfied their developmental requirements through the multiple measures approach. Enrollment in the corequisite math courses dropped from 400 students in fall 2020 to 177 students in fall 2021.

With fewer students in each section of developmental courses, “instructors are able to offer more focused attention, even when teaching online, to ensure students succeed in the corequisite model,” Redl says.

A Coordinated Culture of Care at the University of Houston

In the past, when UH faculty and advisors talked to a student, they took notes in a notebook or on their computers. When that student went to another staff member to follow up, they often had to start that conversation at the beginning. “We had a lot of great people doing really strong work to support students, but a lot of times we didn’t connect those dots,” says Melissa Pierson, assistant vice provost for student success.

Through Houston GPS, UH has implemented a new Navigate software system for faculty and staff to capture notes about every advising interaction they have with a student. Collected in an easily accessible dashboard, these notes provide a detailed history of who interacted with each student, when the meeting happened, and what the student was advised.

“We shouldn’t have to depend on the students to carry our messages across campus,” Pierson says. In this new culture of “shared note-taking, the focus now is on getting students the help they need when they need it and surrounding them with a coordinated culture of care.”

In March 2020, the Navigate platform helped UH faculty and advisors to quickly shift classes online amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Faculty and staff sent targeted messages to students, conducted surveys about student preferences and needs, scheduled appointments, and communicated across campus offices and academic departments. “We were able to coordinate by using that technology in a smart, strategic way,” Pierson says.

As part of the university’s leadership role in Houston GPS, UH faculty, administrators, and staff regularly meet with colleagues at other institutions to align degree pathways and discuss textbooks, assessments, and teaching practices within majors so that students can seamlessly transfer. “Everyone gets a good understanding of what students are being taught and what the expectations are at four-year institutions,” says Teri Longacre, associate professor of management and vice provost and dean of undergraduate student success.

Bringing faculty together across institutions to talk about their curricula is great “professional development for faculty,” Short says. “It happens so organically, but that is the kind of deep learning that stays with faculty and becomes institutionalized.”

But collaboration across institutions doesn’t always go smoothly. One time, UH administrators received an urgent email from a community college provost. A UH faculty member had told one of the college’s students that he wouldn’t be prepared to succeed in that major.

“After everybody got over being concerned that such an event occurred, we realized that this was a great learning opportunity,” Short says. “It has led to several cross-institutional conversations to develop stronger curricular alignment. This helps educate our faculty that transfer students aren’t poor-quality students; sometimes, our expectations and learning objectives are misaligned.” The work we do through Houston GPS helps facilitate better alignment among college and university partners across the region.

This year, Houston GPS members launched an initiative focused on identifying and closing equity gaps, especially for students transferring to different campuses. Tracking and collecting data on key student success measures from across the consortium, UH provides Houston GPS partners with several reports on student outcomes, including a transfer feedback report about how transfer students perform academically in courses and major programs. Members of the task forces meet often to discuss articulation agreements, align course requirements for transfer students, and look at data about student graduation rates, transfer rates, and “momentum metrics” that focus on timely credit accumulation. All of these data are disaggregated by demographic indicators such as race, ethnicity, gender, Pell Grant eligibility, and first-generation status.

“We know that doing better requires knowing better,” McDonald says. “Houston GPS creates the opportunity and space to ask questions; identify where there may be gaps in our own skills, abilities, and systems; and promote a culture that encourages sharing ideas and collaborating to benefit the students in our region.”

Full List of Houston GPS Partners

  • Alvin Community College
  • College of the Mainland
  • Galveston College
  • Houston Community College
  • Lone Star College
  • Prairie View A&M University
  • Texas Southern University
  • San Jacinto College District
  • University of Houston
  • University of Houston–Clear Lake
  • University of Houston–Downtown
  • University of Houston–Victoria
  • Wharton County Junior College


  • Ben Dedman

    Ben Dedman is a writer and staff editor at AAC&U.