The Pandemic's Impact on Higher Education and Retention Rates (The EventBuzz Podcast)

chere-finalPodcast speakers: Savannah McIntosh (Purplepass Marketing Director) with David Johnston (Director), Alan Kramer (Co-director), and Donna Thompson (Associate Partner). Jump to links and video notes below. 

The EventBuzz podcast:
Center for Higher Education Retention Excellence (CHERE)



Podcast Transcript: Purplepass + CHERE


Savannah (Purplepass): 

Thanks for listening to another episode of our podcast for event planners presented by Purplepass. Today, we are sitting down with the Center for Higher Education Retention Excellence, an organization whose mission is to help improve policies and practices that lead to increased college retention. While focusing on success in higher education, the organization recently shared their thoughts on how the pandemic will, and currently is altering how we learn.

They also share an abundant amount of resources on their website. We will be discussing all of this later in the episode. So let's get started.


David (CHERE):

Okey doke. Well, I'm David Johnston and I created CHERE seven or eight, I guess now eight years ago, partly because I wanted to do more in depth work on college access and colleagues success or what we call challenge students, basically underrepresented first generation students and I had had a lot of experience doing so I created a nonprofit organization incorporated under an established organization, Hartford Consortium for Higher Education and began by putting on events, conferences, all related to retention and one one form or another.

And Alan joined me about I lost track now, Alan, four or five years ago, when we started working together, and we fairly quickly evolved into a team. And thank goodness for me because Alan brings a big skill set to the table and much, much appreciated. Alan, what would you like to add about yourself?


Alan (CHERE):

When I met David, I was dean of magnet schools at Goodwin University in Connecticut. And I had been an urban principal, both in Waterbury, Connecticut and in Philadelphia. So I was coming from the world of high school in college working directly with students, which is why as David pointed out, it was a good combination, because we brought very different skill sets.

We have built the rest of it together and as you said, it's really we are focused on creating connections between people at the college level. We did conferences for many years, obviously, we haven't the last year, but we've done them digitally. We've done them through zoom. So we have maintained that, that standing in the community where we're the vehicle to bring people together to confront issues that they deal with on a daily basis and working with those challenges students that David mentioned. 



For the listeners out there, Donna just joined us in case, they're gonna be like, oh, who's just popped up.


Donna (CHERE): 

Okay. So, um, seven up for years, I I, I taught foreign language at the high school and I ran an Upward Bound program for 20 years and a program at Wesleyan University. And for the last 10 years, I've been writing grants and advising people on educational opportunity programs. And been involved with some of state, regional and national initiatives to advocate for educational opportunities, particularly for low income first generation students, which just is my passion and interest.

And as of two years, I don't know, a year or so ago, David, and Alan asked me to join their team because a lot of the work we're doing was parallel. So I've been privileged to work with this team to do what they shared with you that we do.



Awesome. Okay. Yeah, I'm going to ask you guys more about the virtual events because I want to see how that's been going. But um, what so what are the typical types of events that you guys host? I know I went through your websites, saw that you guys do conferences, at least you've been doing virtual ones now. And then you do? Are they little like panels?



Well, almost everything has been in the context of, we sometimes call them conferences, sometimes we call them convenings, which is a little more targeted, and usually by invitation, only in a smaller number of people, but they've all been related to retention for challenged students.

We've looked at first generation students, we've looked at the barriers that different kinds of students encounter we've looked at, oh, financial aid, a whole bunch of related subjects that cover a pretty broad banned last year, I guess twice now we have done two day conferences. One three years ago or two years ago, I guess, on first generation students was a two days separated by about four months. But it was one conference. And we had mostly the same people who came back.

Last year, we did a two day event on two consecutive Fridays, which was an interesting challenge to see if people would come two Fridays in a row on two different campuses nearby, on the subject of the future of higher education, which was a much broader sweep. And we looked at a lot of different issues, it wasn't just about retention, all that's still at the at the core.

And as we have done several times, we brought in a national speaker, from a national higher educational organization, we do that occasionally. Although one of our favorite things to do is to just find experts on our subject, within our network, because there are many of them and we bring them in and usually do a panel, sometimes one of them as a keynote speaker, other times, each of them presents and they respond to each other.

The other piece, that is I don't know if it's unique, but it's maybe somewhat unusual that we do is that we are big on student involvement. And we always have students at the table, we always do a student panel. At the big conference last year, we had one student panel on, on racism on campus that was moderated by a student with about four other students and they ran the whole thing. So we're really big on that kind of leadership development. If we're going to focus on student issues, we need to have students at the table that's it.



Yeah, I love that. I definitely agree. And for people listening, if they aren't familiar, could you just explain retention to them?



Sometimes called persistence, but it basically means people get to college, and they continue to be there, ideally, to thrive and what does it take to help them through that? What are the what are the issues, we've looked at those in detail. And I think the piece that I sent you on through high impact practices are the kinds of things that not not every campus has done all of those, but that many campuses do to purposely attract challenged students and to provide the supports to help them.

So it's everything from helping them before they get to a school during the summer, sometimes called a Bridge program, to make sure that they matriculate, and to basically be an extended family for a lot of students, because a lot of the more challenged students often lower income, often students of color, although not at all, don't have the family context that we call a college going culture, we didn't invent that term, but college going culture that just assumes that you'll go to college, and that you'll have family there to back you up.

A lot of the kids we've worked with over the years and featured at our conferences, don't have that kind of support and we work on the techniques through both on campus and through community organizations to provide that that kind of support. Sort of I sometimes call it re-engineering the organic family. 



If I can jump in a little bit? The other aspect of retention retention actually is not a word that resonates with students, whereas persistence is students have to persist, but the college is trying to retain them. So the other aspect of retention that's really crucial to us is if you're a college and colleges, let's face it are businesses, they've got to get to a point where they're bringing in enough revenue to be able to support the programs and students and faculty where they're in and your students come for a semester and then leave. That's not a good business practice. So a lot of the people that we deal with our primary audience in these conferences, is most of the frontline people work directly with students who run student support services, or run student centers, and the administrative people who kind of support them. We have many college presidents who come, we have college Dean's who come, we have faculty members who are engaged and from their perspective, they're thinking of returning intention is, "I have Alan Kramer here is one of my students, I want him to be successful because he's one of our students, but also, if our students leave us, that's not good for the institution."

So one of the other things that CHERE is known for, in addition to what David was saying about engaging students and putting them at the table, is that we engage our members, in these conferences, many conferences, you'll go to, you'll have an outside speaker who was not connected with anything that's going on on your local campuses. And people may learn a lot from that person, but we are trying to bring people together, so they engage with each other. So the Dean of this college and the president of that college and the faculty member of some other college can exchange ideas and suggestions.

And we often find that the people who come to our events will go back and connect with each other and invite them to their campuses. We're trying to build that capacity, because they have a stake in the success of their students, both as educators but also as people who want their institutions to thrive.



That was well put. Now I understand. And back to like what you're saying, David, it hits home for me because I was also a first gen student and I think people just don't realize like they you definitely need more resources out there for them. Just because like you said, we're not grown up in a household that like pushes college pushes a higher education.

So I definitely, like really appreciate what you guys are doing. And we had a great support were at my college, but I see like others where there's not so much. But definitely be hard. I wanted to see how your guys's virtual event went, that was last Friday?



So Savannah, we've actually done 1234 virtual events. The last Friday was the first one that was basically a whole day. And like some previous events we've done, it was a partnership with another organization, the Connecticut Association of Educational Opportunity Programs, this was their annual conference, and I happened to be the Vice President of that organization and responsible for finding their conferences.

So but the first time we did all day, we were a little nervous about it, because we weren't sure we could get people to hang in there with us. But Donna had been through some of these other organizations and assured us that, if we built it, people would come and and we ended up with I think about 45 people on including some people from other parts of the country, which is, of course something that can happen when you're doing a virtual event.

But we had done over the summer, we did two, two hour events, one with just students, we had six students from five campuses, on for two hours talking about what what they how they were doing and what they expected for the fall. And we did a two hour version with some higher ed people to talk about really what they expected for the fall. Then in October, we did a two hour event partnered with an organization called The Sons of Thunder, which has worked primarily with young black men and mentoring with kids in Hartford.

We did a conference on mentoring for them and with them, so. So we've often partnered with other organizations to put on events, but last week was this full day partnership to talk about trauma. And we have a national expert, Dr. Karen gross, who's written a terrific book called "Trauma doesn't stop at the school door." And she talked through the different types of trauma, how to define it, how to understand it, she had us doing hands on exercises, which was interesting to do in a you know, in a virtual setting, but we did it with pictures, we did things in silence, she had a standing up and exercising at one point.

So that was really interesting to see how that would work. And by and large, most of the folks stuck with us for the day. I know we lost a few people probably after after lunch, I took a break and people could you know, go to the kitchen and get lunch. And we had really positive feedback on the on the content. And as a part of the registration fee that goes to this organization, we partnered with. Everybody is going to get a copy of her book and we're just in the process of following up with that now.



Nice Oh, sorry, my mic



That was last Friday.



Um, okay, so I want to make sure it's so for you. Do you guys do virtual events in response to COVID? or you already were?



We have been talking about doing some webinars that would be virtual, but we hadn't had the time to plan them. And then when, when the COVID business hit, it was pretty clear that everybody had to go virtual. So like other organizations, we we adapted. And fortunately, Donna is has more technical expertise than Alan and I have. And although Donna, you have certainly got better than that, and it's because it's challenging, especially last last week, when we had a lot of different things going on. And, you know, there's always some kind of a glitch when you're dealing with technology. But by and large, we did fine and got through it, and people were listening and participating.



Savannah, I wanted to add to that one piece that we really wanted to do with the challenge of these conferences, even on the one that I was on a few weeks ago, which was maybe three, well actually was on two that was that were maybe three full days. And there's this, the biggest challenge with these conferences is to be able to have interaction with people like in real conferences, you know, you see someone in the hall, you chit chat.

And, you know, as a businesswoman, that's where I get all my contacts from, is that informal piece. So two things in the conferences that I went to is one, they did, they had some fun events in there that forced you to engage like one of them was sort of an after hours social hour and they had a couple little programs that were very interactive and fun.

There was one about a quiz, focused on the state that was hosting the conference, like where was Whole Foods founded in? You know, and, and they had machinery or a little software that, you know, the first person he answered would get, you know, a higher point and score. So it was kind of a fun, social activity and the other thing is, I hope that their conference last week, I had been watching a lot about virtual Thanksgiving.

So I was suggesting to everybody, "Hey, get your lunch and join us back and we'll hear some stories that we as a committee had shared about each other." But unfortunately, maybe folks were just overwhelmed so that piece didn't go off as I hoped it had, you know, people really ate their lunch or didn't come back until it was time to come back. But it was it was a fun thought and I think it could have some benefit and value as we go forward.



Oh, Savannah, another piece on last Friday is that because the subject is deep and complicated, we arranged with our with our expert, Karen Gross to do a follow up. So we're going to do a two or three hour virtual event, I think February 5th with the same people and they get that for the fee that they paid. They will have received the book by then ideally, they will have read it or at least looked at it and we'll probably send them some homework, maybe a case study to do. We haven't worked out the exact agenda yet but we agreed that it would be desirable to do a follow up and I think people were enthusiastic about that.

The other, one other little point, Donna mentioned some of the fun things that she experienced with other conferences. We did a raffle at the end of the day on Friday and the president Rob Vodi. He was able to project a like a, what do you call it a roulette wheel, and it had everybody's name on it that was participating I think?



Yes, yes it did.



And he was able to spin it and just like a roulette wheel. It went fast, and then slowed down and pointed at somebody named and we had a couple of raffle prizes to give out. So that was just a fun thing to do virtually.



Oh, I was gonna say we really are all getting so creative.



So another thing that I've noticed, which has been very fun for the workshops, I've put participated in, they have since you don't have a booklet, they have a um, what do you call it? They have a if they have a little PowerPoint that rotates in the beginning and it sort of flashes, the stars of who's going to be on the PowerPoint. And I've learned that they have some, they play little jazzy snippets of popular music for 30 seconds, you're allowed to do it for 30 seconds for free.

So they'll do these little snippets of music to kind of get you in the mood. Like before our conference, somebody said, I'm dancing, you know, to sort of, and also, we've done it where we have gorgeous headshots of beautiful people that are sharing, you know, that's being flashed, and a few minutes before the beginning of the presentation that sort of creates a festive, lively area.

With this last week on trauma, I chose songs like Help, like a bridge over troubled waters. David suggested Stairway to Heaven by the Grateful Dead. Just some moving pieces, 32nd snippets that would give you an idea or get you in the mood of the theme. So that sort of, you know, helps to liven up things.



Oh, that's a good idea.



Actually, Stairway to Heaven is Led Zeppelin.



Oh did I say it wrong? Sorry. I was not familiar, but I took David's suggestion on that. But those are little things that first of all, the beautiful headshots make the people feel really important who are going to be presented. And they also, they also, I heard several of the panelists say, "Wow, I'm, you know, in such distinguished company here," and it makes them feel good. And, you know, it drives up enthusiasm to the participants of who they're going to be hearing from.



Savannah, if you if you have four hours, Sunday, we can one day, we can send you the recording,



Um, and for your guys's virtual events, I just like to ask this question, because we have a lot of listeners doing what everyone else is doing trying to transition into the online space? What software do you guys use for the streaming? Or for hosting it?



We we've used what Zoom of course, for the presenting software. So Zoom gives you, well, I always record it to the cloud, because all kinds of things could happen with your own machine, or you could get interrupted. So Zoom will record it, and that I will download it because the recording is only valid for I think, two weeks, so I will download it into there's there's several different cheap software's I mean, I have a Mac, so I download it to iMovie or sometimes I'm forgetting the name of the other software, and I just clean up like the pre where you're chatting, here, your ready and, and cut out stuff to shorten it and, and cut out, you know, bloops or mistakes to make it short and tight.

And then I posted it to Vimeo. I mean, you could post it anywhere I do it because they're such large files. And, you know, you don't I don't always want to trust my own machine or well, yeah, totally. They don't have to download it, they can just listen to it and it doesn't take up a lot of time or space.



Okay, good to know. Yeah, I always like to ask that because we have a bunch of event planners coming to us and asking, and there's literally there's so many options. So it's really about finding like, what, what solutions do you need? And then what works for you. 



I will say, um, you know, a couple of our options have required a little price, you know, for the number that we have for webinar and also for Vimeo. But, you know, when you're doing this like we are, it's worth it, you know, in the long run. 



Exactly. So you guys plan, I mean, we obviously don't know what's going to happen, we're still waiting with the virus. So you guys are planning on doing virtual events for the long haul for right now. Right?



Yes, we actually just we have regular business meetings on Tuesdays. So we talked yesterday and we have a new, another partner who has just joined us I was hoping to get him on today, but I think he's probably going to call in at 1230. I'll have to get in touch with him. Ariel Robinson, who is a young, younger counselor at Goodwin University is going to join us but we we were talking yesterday about possible future events and we're looking at two or three different things.

The organization we mentored we have partnered with on mentoring Sons of Thunder; we're probably going to do another event looking at how inner city students are interested in being involved in sports getting a scholarship to school, in some cases, they have, you know, mostly unrealistic notions about playing for the NBA or the NFL or something and, and how do we coach them effectively.

And we actually are going to try to engage some coaches and some young, I don't think it has to be all men, but young Africans, see how that how that has gone. So that would be again, a partnership or a partnership event. We're also talking about looking at kind of at the trauma issue only from a slightly different angle around mental health on campus and inviting some mental health experts from several campuses, and some students...



Sorry David, I was going to add, we're focusing on, what are the lessons that we've learned from COVID, in other words, how are things going to be different going forward as, as folks deliver services, or how they think about and manage their time, which there are some precious really good lessons that have been learned, even though we all crave the visual and personal interaction with people, but there's some really good strong strategies that we'll take from this?



Oh, yeah. And I mean, I was gonna ask you guys, just to wrap it up, I was going to say, if I could have each of you guys kind of just share your thoughts on how the pandemic is changing higher education, or how it will and then maybe, like a tip for other educational programs and schools out there looking for ways that they can keep like students engaged and on track during COVID.



Alan, why don't you tackle this first question on how the pandemic is changing higher education? I know, it's a big, tough question, but you can do it.



Yeah. It doesn't have to be like a big thing. I was just thinking, like, maybe just share a few thoughts about it?



Well, I think one of the things, it's obvious, and we're doing it right now, this is a very powerful tool. I think we were intimidated by the idea of trying to do things virtually because it felt less connected than what we're used to, which is face to face with students. But practically speaking, I don't think we're ever going back, I think that there are going to be significant numbers of students who are going to say, "you know, what, I don't need to drive to a campus or I don't need to live on campus, I don't even need to be involved with all the other activities, I can get the information I need to this way."

And I think that the virtual era, and the hybrid courses are going to become much more dominant moving forward, I think that's clear, because students have gotten used to it. The great irony and the great challenge here is that the students who have money who can afford to go and live on campus will have a much more enriched kind of experience, it's the same students we are dealing with who are going to have to make the equation, "do I want to spend $40,000 a year to live on campus? Or do I want to do this at a distance", and I think we have the great challenge that we will face at CHERE, and we will face in higher ed generally is are we going to be creating from this, two totally different educational systems, one for those who can connect with people and live with people on campus, and the other for folks who are just going to dip in enough to get the information they need and the certifications, they need to go to the next step.

And I think that's going to be a huge issue moving forward. Because I don't think the student who has gone through this is going to say, "you know what, I'm going to find the $40,000 to live on campus." So we're going to be grappling with that.

So that's my one thought on that about the permanence of some of the changes in the way information is delivered in the way students learn.



I think Alan's right about that, but I also think that traditional age students coming right out of high school, are still going to want to try the campus experience, the living in the dorm, and all the things that happen. And of course, schools are terrified about losing the capacity or the willingness of students to come and do that it's a financial issue for them, their lost revenues, and so on. But I think Alan is right, that we're not going to go back from having virtual learning be a part of higher education.

And I think the hybrid model is going to be what's going to, what's going to be happening, and I think the schools that will continue to be creative about that, while still trying to attract those students who can come to campus either can afford it or confine the financial aid to do it, that that is still going to be there for for the time being.



And I'll say, yes, um, for many people so long, you could be passive about work or school, basically, you just showed up, and sometimes you were in it into it or not into it. Um, you know, in this climate you could have been, you could just goof off and never show up and never be anything. But I think this is forcing people to be self motivated, to determine that they need to grow up, they need to show up, they need to buckle down and be self motivated self to be organized, and determine what it is they want to get out of the end of this project or time that they're spending and have something to show for it in the end. So, you know, for a student for a professional, I think it's really forced folks to engage in some self regulation and self discipline to get anything done at all.

So I think, you know, that's, that's going to be a plus, if people can really grow with that not fall back into, you know, oblivion and get nothing and do nothing.



And Savannah, if I might add to what Donna was saying, if you look at what's going on in high schools right now, up to 20% of the students who we tend to follow, who are the first generation students, the urban students have disappeared from from high school programs. And we haven't really looked at that, because we're, as Donna said, we're looking at self regulation, we're looking at students who are trying to engage, we have a whole lost generation here that we haven't had a chance even to begin to think about who are are, are elsewhere in terms of where they are in process.

And there are probably 10% of them at college as well, who just sort of dropped out along the way that we have to find and bring back into the fold.



Maybe, maybe that's a conference topic, Alan.



Yeah, that could be you know, Savannah, I know you want to wrap things up, but you asked what did we have any tips for people?



Yes, no, I definitely want to hear the tips.



Well, I mean, I think this is applies to not just college, but also to K through 12. I have a daughter, who's an elementary school teacher in New York City has been teaching online for eight months. I think the overused word for institutions, whether it's k12 schools or high schools or colleges is constant communication.

Students are many students are feeling lonely, you know, they're home, they're there. They're with family. They're sick of seeing their families every day. I don't know about you guys, but let's see, I've got my door close so I think my wife can hear me see the same people every day, it can get overwhelming. They need, students need regular contact with, with campuses, with teachers, with counselors, with administrators, even if it's just a text message that says, "Hey, Jimmy, hey, Johnny, how are you doing? You know, what's, what's new, and anything we can do to help?" that then leads to more substantive connections around the coursework or whatever it is they need to do. I don't think schools can an over communicate in terms of staying in touch with students because students are really desirous of connections.



I agree on that because I, I in school, when I was in school, we did the hybrid learning and I, I went to class, but then you do it online. And it's just, there's a different, at least for me, it's definitely a different learning experience online versus in person and you lack that interaction, that interaction with your teacher with your peers, it's hard.



They both have their their value. That's why the the schools that are going to do well, I think are the ones that can develop a hybrid model that uses the best, the best of both.






And so then it's worth reminding the people who listen that our focus is on a specific sub population. We're not saying that this is the way it is for all students, but the students that we focus on are generally speaking urban kids or rural kids, kids who are not part of the normal, you grew up, you're going to go to college because your parents did, generation and their needs and their problems, their challenges are very different.



Okay, Donna is there any tip you want to get before we wrap it up?



I would just say with this period, um, that students and professionals need to determine what am I going I have to show for, you know, at the end of this period, it's not the ideal situation but in the end we'll do I want to have squandered my time, or do I want to have taken advantage of, of the isolation and really bone up my skills and improve what I can do in what I can be given this kind of unhinged lack of interruptions by people and socializations and distractions, and that's not always easy to do.

But then it takes a certain bit of self determination to say, this is what I want to have come out of this in the end.



Yeah, that's a good point. It's definitely we there's definitely different types of people. It's either like we use this time to improve on ourselves, like you said, no distractions and really grow or we don't. So yeah. Okay, well, thanks again, guys. I really enjoyed talking to you learned a lot and I think it's really going to help our listeners out there and our educators out there that are like how do I keep my students going.



Video notes and links

Center for Higher Education Retention Excellence:

About the organization 

Hartford Consortium for Higher Education


Live streaming resources: 


Zoom for conferences

Mac iMovie

Premiere Pro editing software


Educational resources: 

Inside Higher Education

How will the pandemic change higher education?

To open or not to open: Colleges and Universities seek a return to "normal"

Event ticketing for high schools, universities and education

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