Thriving after COVID: General Education, Cohorts, and Closing Equity Gaps at Scale
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Thriving after COVID

General education, cohorts, and closing equity gaps at scale

By Constance C. Relihan, Melissa C. Johnson, and Virginia W. Totaro

April 22, 2021

Once the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us, colleges and universities will continue to be asked, insistently and justifiably, what they are doing to ensure that students who have been hurt most over the past year—historically underrepresented, first-generation, and low-income students—have the same opportunities to succeed as students with economic advantages, racial privilege, and a wealth of social capital.

The equity and student success model that we recommend works in both online and face-to-face learning environments, in boutique programs and at liberal arts colleges, and even for entire undergraduate populations at large comprehensive universities: student cohorts that focus on providing the sense of community and the academic skills that help students succeed.

A Cohort Model for Building Critical Thinking and Composition Skills at Virginia Commonwealth University

Each year, 4,500 first- and second-year students at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) participate in the three-course Focused Inquiry program. Each course focuses on developing the communication, critical thinking, ethical reasoning, information fluency, and collaboration skills that will set students up for success in later classes.

In small cohorts, first-year students take a Focused Inquiry course in each of their first two semesters, both taught by the same faculty member. With common themes and readings across cohorts, students explore societal issues while forming a community with their classmates. In their second year, students take a third course in which they develop an individual inquiry question, engage in research, craft an academic argument, and reformulate that argument for other audiences.

Recent data suggest that the program is having a positive impact on our students’ success. Pell-eligible students who completed all three of their Focused Inquiry courses at VCU had much higher graduation rates than students who satisfied the course requirements through dual-enrollment during high school, AP/IB courses, or transfer credits (an increase of up to 19.6 percent, depending on the year). Students from historically underrepresented minority groups saw a similar increase (up to 17.2 percent), while graduation rates increased 16.5 percent for students overall. (Complete data are available here.) Because of the clear benefits for students who take these courses at VCU, we are working to create parallel cohort experiences for students who satisfy all or part of the requirements before arriving on campus.

Though there are still discrepancies in outcomes that we hope to eliminate, these data suggest that students are much more likely to persist and earn a degree if they complete courses on campus, are taught by dedicated faculty members, engage in high-impact practices, and have structured opportunities to form deep connections with each other and with their professors. Below, we identify several elements that make our program work.

Committed and dedicated faculty. Each faculty member in the Department of Focused Inquiry has a broad interdisciplinary background and a deep commitment to general education. The department employs sixty-five full-time faculty on renewable three-year contracts, organized in a formal academic department with a robust shared governance structure that emphasizes participation in curriculum development and pedagogical growth. Faculty are evaluated based on their teaching and service, not on research unrelated to their teaching. Consequently, the department can direct all of its attention to providing the highest quality general education writing and critical thinking courses possible.

An independent administrative home. Focused Inquiry is housed within the University College, which also has administrative responsibility for a bachelor’s degree program in interdisciplinary studies and for the university’s common book program. In other words, the entire administrative unit is devoted to high-impact academic programs that promote interdisciplinary thinking and student success.

Financial support. This program isn’t cheap. The program spends more than $5.5 million annually on faculty salaries and benefits, and costs become particularly visible during spring semesters when cohorts are maintained even as student attrition results in fewer enrolled students and more empty seats. Nonetheless, the program has broad support across campus because of its clear benefit to VCU’s students. This commitment was strengthened in fall 2019, when the provost provided funding to reduce class sizes from twenty-two to nineteen students, adding more than $300,000 to the annual cost of the program.

A commitment to access and inclusivity in high-impact practices. Our program satisfies the university’s dedication to providing all of our students with access to high-impact practices such as common intellectual experiences, collaborative learning, learning communities, undergraduate research, and writing-intensive courses. Research from George Kuh and others shows that while high-impact practices can improve student success and retention, first-generation students and students from underrepresented groups are less likely to seek out these types of experiences. By embedding multiple high-impact practices in courses that affect nearly all of our students, the two-semester cohort model provides the greatest benefits to students who need a supportive network in which to learn and adjust to university life. Our program is worth the cost because it creates a curricular structure around practices proven to benefit all of our students.

Our experiences and data show that large public universities that truly wish to close equity gaps and increase student success should consider emulating community-building programs like Focused Inquiry. While we are awfully proud of what our faculty and students have accomplished, we also want to hear from those of you working in similar programs so that we can learn from your experiences and collaborate to further close achievement gaps. Our students deserve no less.


  • Constance C. Relihan

    Contance C. Relihan is dean of University College at Virginia Commonwealth University.

  • Melissa C. Johnson

    Melissa C. Johnson is a professor and chair of the Department of Focused Inquiry at Virginia Commonwealth University.

  • Virginia W. Totaro

    Virginia W. Totaro is assistant professor and director of assessment for University College at Virginia Commonwealth University.