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Thought Leadership

Hampton University’s Insights on Crafting an Unparalleled Student Experience

Interview with Darrell K. Williams

President, Hampton University

Hear Hampton University’s President, Darrell K. Williams, discuss how they have approached enhancing the student experience by supporting students to graduation and beyond.

It has become increasingly difficult for colleges and universities to stand out in today’s higher education environment. Deep competition, staffing shortages, a shrinking pool of students, and a growing public perception that questions the value of a degree require institutional leaders to think creatively in order to succeed. 

Hampton University, one of the top HBCUs in the country, is embracing this innovative mindset with a focus on creating an unparalleled student experience. In this wide-ranging interview, Hampton’s President Darrell K. Williams joins Kaplan's Vice President of University Partnerships Kim Canning and Senior Director of Pre-Health Programs Petros Minasi to discuss initiatives that enable Hampton to deliver on this strategic goal.

Key topics include:

  • Collaboration amongst university leadership on new initiatives focused on student success pre- and post-graduation.

  • A focus on building critical-thinking skills as a way to set students apart in support of workforce readiness.

  • Prioritization to provide all students with free access to test prep for graduate admissions standardized exams, licensures, and certifications to level the playing field and help them achieve their educational and career goals.

What follows is an edited transcript of this interview. Watch the video above for the full webcast.

One of the strategic goals at Hampton University is to “Deliver the #1 Student Experience in America.” What does that mean to you and what are some of the key initiatives you’re embarking on to carry out this commitment?

President Williams: The University’s goal is to deliver the number one student experience to the students. We are a university that is, first and foremost, focused totally on student success. All else that we do behind the scenes to facilitate is important. The University is an enterprise with student interests, faculty, staff, alumni, business partners, community leaders, you name it. At the end of the day, they all exist to support one goal, and that is to support our student success.

And so, we wanted to develop a vision that acknowledged that in a very simple way, one that everyone can understand and see how they fit into it. It is not very difficult for a faculty member to understand how they fit into the delivery of the number one student experience in America. Equally so, it is not difficult for the person who works in the cafeteria, or the groundskeeper, or someone else within the organization to understand very simply how we provide that. 

At the very top of the list of things that will lead us to that experience is academic excellence. We do have goals, and academic excellence is at the top. Launching Kaplan’s All Access License program for us is a way to fortify that academic excellence. We all know that our students have to take a number of these exams, either before they graduate or shortly afterward. And this was one of our commitments, and one of our down payments, on that overall student experience. 

Kim Canning: This becomes part of what the University is providing, equity in terms of accessing the resources that we know can really propel students to the next level. Shoring up those pipelines to medical school, law school, graduate school, helping to define those paths, helping to push those students down those pathways, which the more students that are in those pipelines, the more students we can help to matriculate into graduate and professional schools.

We have a long history with Hampton, and we have had several conversations over the past five or six years about how we could expand access. The concept clearly fits into this idea of academic success and propelling students forward in that place. 

Petros Minasi: I agree with the notion that these exams really do show the opportunities that are available—students want to go to law school or medical school, and many times these exams are seen as barriers, but really it is, "here is your potential, here is the next step." It opens doors to lots of things for students, including scholarships and maximizing student potential.

What is your approach to collaboration and gaining support amongst university leadership on new initiatives focused on student success pre- and post-graduation?

President Williams: I think you have touched on one of the really important aspects of the execution of this entire Kaplan All Access License program. It was very important upfront to get all of our faculty involved right away to see what tests students want to have access to for exam prep. The other aspect of it was talking to students themselves.

We administered an informal survey, if you will, asking about the amount of money that our students are spending on test preparation. I felt like we did a broad-based cross-section of interests and equity surrounding what our approach really needed to be.

That is how we defined the exact test prep that we wanted to be able to provide for our students. And so, I am happy to say that we started the program in the January timeframe, and in very short order, about 244 students are already involved in the program. The largest programs being MCAT®, LSAT®, and the GRE®. We are also doing the NCLEX® and PRAXIS®. For being essentially a month and a half into the program, those numbers are pretty significant.

We are so happy that we can do this to lower the total cost of attendance for our students. Shortly after graduation, many of our students had to then take these graduate admissions or licensure tests and you're looking at preparatory exams that can cost anywhere between $3,000 and $6,000. The question for many students is, where do I get that money from?

“I cannot tell you how many ‘thank yous' I've gotten from students surrounding the university's launch for the All Access License program.”

I will give you a small example. Two nights ago, I had a president's town hall with our students and we talked about several initiatives that we have undertaken this past year. To make a long story short, when we talked about this new Kaplan initiative, we got among the loudest responses, claps, and thanks for the University doing a great job.

It has been very successful, but it was definitely facilitated by a lot of gathering and collection of information and making sure that all of the right people were involved. 

What is your advice on how to get key departments on board for student centered initiatives?

Kim Canning: That is a good lead into our next question: do you have advice on how to get key departments on campus on board for student-centered and student success approaches? We want to say we are here for the students first, but actions do not always prove to be true. The amount of effort that you and your team put into asking questions about what students need and really listening to the responses is an important piece of this. I think the end result was this launch of the All Access License. You can probably say this about other initiatives you have as well--that students were primed and ready because you have been asking the right questions and thoughtfully listening to what the students need and want. 

President Williams: You are exactly right. How do you provide the number one student experience in America without listening to your students?

To that end, back in October, we also did a student survey from 1 October to 23 October. From the survey, we developed a list of items that we need to address. One of the items was the amount of money that students spend to prepare themselves. Born out of that idea was this particular interest in making sure that our students would be as prepared as they possibly could be.

The other thing that factored into that decision for us was once you establish a relationship with the students where they understand that when they fill out a survey or address a concern to the administration, that you're actually going to take action on it. It has benefits well beyond the Kaplan program. Anytime that you can demonstrate your care and concern for what happens with our students, and it affects the bottom line, the total cost of attendance, then that is making a real difference in someone's life.

That is the kind of feedback that I have been getting about the program. And right now, it is all thumbs up. We are very, very hopeful that this will, in fact, lead to better performance by our students on all of the national exams. Some, as you all know, will go for the most inexpensive, but not as complete, test prep as they can get. Not because they don't want to but because they cannot afford it.

We think by offering high-quality instruction that they do not have to pay for, we are going to have a better pass rate for our students on all the national exams. 

How do you measure and assess student utilization?

President Williams: On the front end, we are being as intentional as we can. For the online courses, Kaplan will be able to give us some metrics on how many students actually attend. On the courses of instruction that are in person, we are actually taking attendance.

“In the early stages of the program, there is a great deal of excitement around this test preparation and students are very, very grateful.”

To pivot for just a moment to an aspect of this that we will begin to adopt and implement next year is a module on critical thinking. The test prep that we have been talking about thus far are designed to assist students with postgraduate and professional schooling. But, the module on critical thinking applies to every student at the University.

We have been talking about how we want to implement the critical thinking component to help students in every academic endeavor. Critical thinking applies to, as we all know, everything.

It is our hope that starting next fall, we will find a way to make it a part of our freshman orientation. And at minimum for our continuing students, it will be an elective.

We think so highly of the critical thinking course that we believe it is something that the students can't afford not to do. 

Petros Minasi: I agree, and critical thinking is so broad in scope. It is oftentimes overlooked. That leads up to the test preparation for these standardized exams, which all have critical thinking in them. Or the job that a student is going to have after graduation that is going to have critical thinking in it. It's a life skill and a full career skill. 

Kim Canning: To give more context, the genesis of the critical thinking course is in work that we have done with pipeline programs, in understanding that before students take test prep, they may need more skill building around critical thinking.

When you look at standardized tests, the basis is critical thinking across the board. Students will obviously have that leg up when it comes to starting their test prep and ultimately taking a test.

But, as you pointed out, it also then helps in life, and persisting and finishing and graduating from Hampton, as you go on into the workforce, or continue to expand your education. It is really this basis, and we have heard from numerous advisors and partners over the years that this is a real, identifiable need for students.

I personally was just thrilled when we brought this up in conversation with Dr. Williams and his team. They identified that providing this resource as he talked about, to freshman, continuing students, that this was going to be a priority for them, which I think is really tremendous. 

How did you approach funding for Kaplan’s All Access License?

President Williams: The University is absorbing this cost, so it is not being passed on to the student in any way of additional fees. I thought that it was important enough to invest in our students. As I got our budget amended with the Board of Trustees, this was an item that was not in the budget at the beginning of the academic year. 

But it was such a powerful program and so important that I took it on faith that we would be able to find the dollars to resource it. And certainly we did. This, among other things, we were able to adjust within our current year's budget.

You cannot do that too often; you only want to do it for things that are truly impactful. I want to get to a point where I wasn't talking about impacting student experience next year or the year after. 

“We began to talk about something that could impact the student experience right now. This was one of those initiatives.”

And so, I am happy to say that our seniors at the University in particular have definitely embraced the program. This will help those students right now.

If I added a collective cost of what those students would have to pay for these exams, I'm almost certain it would be in the several hundreds or thousands of dollars. One of the criteria by which we defined whether or not we would accept the program or do it was that we would have to find the dollars internally to do it, and not have a hidden cost to pass on to students and parents. We found a way to absorb it into the current budget. We are really happy that we did. 

Who is eligible to utilize the program?

President Williams: It is open to students that are currently assigned to the University. We believe that it is a recruitment incentive. We are in the middle of recruitment season; A lot of students will be making college choices out of high school over the next month or two months. We certainly encourage our recruiters, and those that come into the University, to talk about this added benefit--and we do believe that it is.

It is hard to count those dollars; It does add to a student’s cost of attendance. It may not be until three or four years from now, when you do legitimately, but you can add that right now onto the student cost of attending college. That is an item that we think, along with others, we have taken off the table.

It does signal a commitment by the University to be doing everything they can to provide the student experience at lower costs as best we can to our students without passing the cost on. 

In addition to the All Access License for the test preparation, what are some of Hampton’s other student-centered initiatives?

President Williams: I will give you a couple of examples. When our students got ready to go home for Thanksgiving and then again for Christmas, we passed out 400 $25 gas cards. We wanted to take off the financial pressure for students driving home. A $25 gift card by itself is not a lot of money. But when you combine initiatives such as that with bringing things like the national certification exams test prep for free, it paints a picture about the number one student experience.

Something else we are proud of is two programs we run on financial literacy. For all our freshmen that came in this year, we partnered with an investment company called Stockwell. We placed an open $25 into an investment account for every freshman at Hampton University. 

For the next four years at the University, they will own and manage (along with their parents) their own investment account. For the next four years, when our freshman class is coming in, we will have every student at Hampton University with an investment account. That is initiative one. Number two, we partner with an organization called the Society for Financial Education and Professional Development to offer an online, at your pace, financial literacy training to go over credit card debt, school loans, mortgage payments, and why it might be better to buy a used car than a new car.

Pairing financial literacy education with the practical application of having your own account is another way we at Hampton University are investing in our students. When you tie that initiative together with simple things, such as providing gas cards, with now providing free access to the national certification exams, it really paints a number one student experience picture.

From a technology perspective, are there any systems you’ve had to put in place to support these new initiatives?

President Williams: First of all, I'm happy to say that in order to implement the Kaplan program, we did not have to make any additional technology investments. And so, a tip of the hat to your program--it is really agnostic to the systems already in place.

Another thing we did unrelated to this, but we are glad that we did, is that we had an assessment of our broadband infrastructure. From a technology capability and infrastructure perspective, we ended up changing out all the fiber-optic cable at the University. Putting in new firewalls, and the like, to upgrade all our systems here at the University. 

We are looking at the future of the university in terms of technology, and clearly the advent of looking at things like artificial intelligence and machine learning. We are making additional investments that will allow us to optimize the use of those capabilities.

We are also looking into things like the learning that comes out of the whole initiative around the metaverse and augmented reality and so many other areas of technology that are impacting both the student's social experience, but more importantly, the academic experience, and a broad research experience. We are a very good research institution, and technology is assisting us in those spaces as well.

You are intentionally focused on creating a community of learners, can you talk about that?

President Williams: The higher education landscape is changing and at a very rapid rate. One of the more important experiences that I have is that I am a part of several different communities of learners, for example, one is online conversations with other college presidents from different areas. These are the kinds of issues that we talk about. 

Another community of learners focuses on what is happening within the business community, and I find that these communities all become stakeholders in my ability to bring the very best to Hampton University. I don't think you ever stop learning or stop bringing new ideas to the table.

But, again, to bring back this conversation around to Kaplan, what we are doing was certainly one of the most impactful things that we have done at the University this year, and I think it will only improve, or accelerate, as more students know about it next year. When they start taking the critical thinking courses, that has the opportunity to explode. 

What goals do you have for utilizing Kaplan’s All Access License?

President Williams: What I want to provide for our students, more than anything else, is really access. 

“I am confident that given access, students will do their very best that they can do, and it is not about their comparison to another student. It is about getting students to be the very best that they can be.”

In my view, the fact that students are signing up for the tests is an acknowledgment that our students want to be successful. At Hampton, our students are so mission-driven that given access to these resources, they are naturally going to do the best that they can.

Our school has a history and a legacy of producing outstanding graduates. We like to provide what we call an "education for life," and our alma mater talks about students leaving this great university and allowing their lives to do the seeing. We are a national University; You will see Hamptonians around the United States and the world.

There is an expectation that you will do your very best. We are trying to provide tools to allow students to be able to do that. 

Any concluding thoughts?

President Williams: I do think that this is a critical initiative, and even if I were not enamored with this idea of, and driving towards, our vision of providing the number one student experience in America, I would still think that this is a very, very important program. 

It is important to find ways to relieve the burden on our students, and their families, if it is at all possible to absorb those cost drivers out of their college experience. I think more and more that we are going to have to find a way to do so. We want to make education affordable to all. 

Second of all, I would say that this idea of supplementing the formal education of our students, and finding other ways to assist students in growing, is important as well. 

And so, well into the future, Kaplan’s All Access License will be an important program at Hampton. One I look forward to expanding and seeing the fruits of. I look forward to the feedback of students when they get into law school and graduate school and medical school and pass their pharmacy and nursing exams. I look forward to seeing their big smiles as our students take full advantage of this great program.

Learn more about Kaplan’s All Access License.

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