Jenni Woods, Widening Participation Coordinator, ADC
As the University’s Widening Participation Officer I attended the UNC Charlotte study tour with a particular interest in finding out about the pre-entry transition and on course support programmes available to help non-traditional groups of students adjust to university life and achieve the best possible academic outcome.
During our visit we were warmly welcomed by a wide range of staff at different levels who gave up their time to talk to us about the various initiatives at UNC Charlotte that encourage access and success. Myself and David Taylor, Head of Widening Participation, worked particularly closely with Dr Sam Lopez, Director of the Office of Multicultural Academic Services and Mr Howard Simms, manager of the UTOP programme as well as a number of student representatives who answered our questions honestly and spoke about the programmes with great enthusiasm.
The University Transition Opportunities Programme (UTOP) celebrates its 25th anniversary this year and is credited with establishing UNC Charlotte’s commitment to prepare underrepresented students for the shift from high school to college, which is also the main purpose of the Compact Scheme at Kingston University. Therefore, I was keen to learn more about what the programme consists of and its impact on the students who take part. UTOP is open to all first generation applicants to UNC Charlotte, but predominantly targets students from African American backgrounds. It was introduced to address the lower attainment of black students compared to more traditional entrants (a discrepancy that has also been identified within Kingston’s student population) and has proved extremely successful in closing this gap. UTOP consists of a five week residential summer school and
includes three courses worth academic credit as well as social and orientation activities. Research from the past 10 years indicates that students who participated in UTOP had higher retention and graduation rates than students from similar backgrounds who did
not take part. As well as the academic rigour at its core, staff and students emphasised that the shared experience creates a sense of community and support amongst participants that greatly contributes to their success.
Myself and one of the Kingston students were fortunate enough to be invited to a meeting of the UTOP Learning Community during the week of our visit, as well as a meeting of the Learning Community Steering Group. Learning Communities (LCs) have a 10 year history at UNC Charlotte and play a key role in providing pastoral care and supporting students’ attainment during their first year. There are 16 LCs at UNC Charlotte with around 750 students (approx 24% of all Freshmen). LCs are discipline based (e.g. Engineering, Psychology) or have a common theme (e.g. UTOP, Gender Excellence). They are first year academic programmes that carry credit but also benefit the students through providing a
community of peer support, academic mentors and a stronger connection to the institution. We were shown evidence that LC participants achieve a higher grade point average, a better first year retention rate and are more engaged than non-LC students.
Students in the UTOP Learning Community we observed were in the fifth week of their first semester. The LC Coordinator was Mr Howard Simms, an academic member of staff who also manages the UTOP summer school. The students were given an assignment based
on a set text and completed an activity requiring them to reflect on their first few weeks on campus. However, the class also gave students an opportunity to ask questions and clarify matters that had arisen in their early weeks of higher education. Mr Simms was able to offer
them advice and prompt them to take certain actions, e.g. those who had not yet met with their academic adviser to finalise their timetable were told to do so. The students were also encouraged to become involved in activities outside of their course to enhance their skill set on graduation and Mr Simms spoke them about how to present and conduct themselves on campus.
Overall the UTOP students were extremely enthusiastic and clearly felt they had benefited from their involvement in the programme and the Learning Community (though some did admit they had been reluctant to attend the summer school initially!) The students felt the
summer programme had given them a head start in terms of their familiarity with the university and their preparation for study, as well as the comfort of having familiar faces around campus and a secondary academic adviser in Mr Simms. They trusted Mr Simms
and felt a desire to make him proud of them. The students were also confident of how to access support should they need it and that any academic issues would be identified early.
Kingston’s Compact Scheme is being expanded and developed for 2012 entry as part of our recent agreement with the Office for Fair Access. A number of factors, including the UK admissions process and different structure of our degree courses mean that we cannot
provide a programme exactly like UTOP. However, we will be developing short summer schools (2-3 days) to firm applicants in 2012 with preparation activities and study skills related to particular subject areas, as well as an enhanced induction and orientation
session. We are also keen to pilot one or two “Learning Communities” within the Compact Scheme to support new students as part of the transition process (i.e. during the first 4-6
weeks of term). These would initially be co-ordinated by trained student leaders, with input from Faculty staff, and promote regular contact between Compact students based on common themes or subject areas. It is hoped that, as is the case at UNC Charlotte, the
LCs will begin to encourage strong ties between the students and engagement with the institution, as well as ultimately improving retention and attainment in the first year. We will be working with the students who came to UNC Charlotte to develop these aspects of the scheme and intend to recruit and train student leaders to facilitate the work. Since its inception the Compact Scheme has had a significant impact on conversion rates through engaging applicants and advising them on the most appropriate courses to apply for. Retention amongst Compact students from first to second year has also been slightly better than the university overall.
We hope that by developing these new Compact initiatives, and incorporating some of the best practice we witnessed at UNC Charlotte, we can build on this success and ensure that we are supporting students in achieving their full potential at Kingston University.