Implementing Integrated Comprehensive Student Programs in STEM: Challenges and Facilitators from the CSU STEM Collaboratives

Elizabeth Holcombe
University of Southern California
Elizabeth Holcombe, University of Southern California
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published Mar 21, 2018 4:15pm

In my last post, I described the benefits of integrated support programs for underrepresented students in STEM. These integrated programs bridge organizational silos and build a unified community of support, in which faculty and staff work together to break down barriers to student success. The campuses that participated in the CSU STEM Collaboratives project saw increased student success and other organizational benefits as a result of creating integrated programs.

While integration across functional areas represents a promising strategy for supporting student success, it represents a new way of working in higher education. Implementing integrated programs presents some unique challenges that may not be evident when implementing other types of interventions. In this post, I will briefly discuss a few of these challenges, as well as some strategies that STEM Collaboratives campuses used to overcome them.

Collaboration was the most important aspect for a smooth implementation process of integrated initiatives. It was critical to a sound design for linking the three interventions, important to the planning team having a strong process, tied to buy-in, and responsible for helping change agents to navigate institutional policies and practices that get in the way of connecting the programs, such as prohibitions against block scheduling. Collaboration is an important facilitator, but it was also a significant barrier if not approached in the appropriate manner.

Challenges to collaboration played out in a few different ways. First, poor communication and relationship-building hindered collaborative ways of working. Some of the practices that created the most implementation problems included emailing collaborators instead of meeting with them face-to-face, inviting key collaborators to join at the last minute, and not including the right people in decision-making who have the key information to help navigate a particular logistical barrier. Second, lacking the knowledge about what other units of the institution do was a significant barrier to collaboration. For example, many faculty made assumptions about what the registrar, advising, admissions, tutoring, or student support offices could do, or they simply lacked any sense of what resources existed on campus. This lack of knowledge sometimes led to groups spending significant time and energy creating new programs rather than coordinating or collaborating with existing programs. Third, a sense of competition and threat among existing support programs prevented collaboration. At many campuses, a number of different support programs have emerged for first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented minority students. Each program has a stake in supporting the students they have been working with and many program leaders felt threatened by new programs that want to serve these same students. Some new programs actually took away students from their existing program. And finally, a history of poor interactions and relationships, or merely a strong sense of separation among student affairs and academic affairs can inhibit the type of collaboration that is necessary for implementing integrated support programs.

While most STEM Collaboratives campuses experienced these challenges, we also observed a number of practices that enabled teams to overcome them. Teams on the most successful campuses recognized that they lacked knowledge about other units (or did not make assumptions about what other units did). Instead, they had face-to-face meetings with all their collaborators and started off by inquiring and finding out more about these offices and units, and trying to understand the ways that they might collaborate toward the creation of a new support program for STEM students. Leaders on these campuses were also intentional about building teams that included the right collaborators from the beginning. The most effective teams had a balance of staff in student affairs and key faculty in academic affairs. Teams also needed to have faculty and staff on the ground close to students' needs, but also some more senior administrators who could help the planning team in overcoming policy challenges that emerged. Including key stakeholders from the beginning and intentionally building relationships through face-to-face meetings and informal gatherings like dinners or happy hours helped minimize the sense of competition among support programs, as well as the lack of trust and cooperation among student affairs and academic affairs.

A few other practices were especially helpful for implementing these integrated programs. The first was differentiated messaging in order to build buy-in across many different groups. Humboldt State University recognized that it needed to reach out to faculty, administrators, staff, parents, and students with different messages about the need for and benefits of an aligned support program. Faculty got excited about interdisciplinary and field-based research the program offered, staff really resonated with working with the community, and parents really liked the idea of classes guaranteed to count for students' majors. When trying to have multiple groups buy in to a particular program, it is important to understand that different groups have different priorities and motivations and adjust messages accordingly for various groups. Another facilitator was having some sort of coordinator role to manage the varied elements of the project. Sometimes this was a staff person who could keep track of all the different programmatic components and set up all the different meetings across faculty and staff groups. At other campuses, it was a faculty member or two who took on the role. These individuals can be proactive about logistics as well as community-building and relationship-building.

These are just a few of the unique challenges and facilitators to implementing integrated programs that emerged in our research of the CSU STEM Collaboratives project. Additional challenges included such areas as program design, workload, and other institutional policies. To learn more about these topics, please see our report or join me for a webinar on Wednesday, March 28.

Suggested Citation:

Holcombe, E. (2018, March 21). Implementing Integrated Comprehensive Student Programs in STEM: Challenges and Facilitators from the CSU STEM Collaboratives. Retrieved from

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