Howard University's Approach to Creating a Culture of Student Success
Join Howard University’s Provost, Dr. Anthony K. Wutoh, for an in-depth discussion as a leader of one of our nation’s leading HBCUs.
Ensuring student success in higher education encompasses a broad range of pursuits, including academic rigor, inclusive access, community service, workforce readiness, and more. Building a culture focused on excellence across all facets of the student’s journey is a deliberate focus that requires broad institutional support, and Howard University has shown it’s not only possible, but necessary.
Watch this webcast for an in-depth discussion on creating a sustainable culture of student success featuring one of our nation’s leading HBCUs. Amongst other accolades, Howard University is the leading producer of African American students entering medical schools in the U.S. and is the only HBCU to be ranked in the top 100 in U.S. News & World Report’s Best National University rankings (2022–2023). Join Howard’s Provost, Dr. Anthony K. Wutoh, and Kaplan’s Kim Canning and Mark Reimonenq to hear how Howard is building on its legacy of top alumni and instituting new initiatives to continue to propel the University forward.
Key topics include:
Challenges and opportunities for universities to continuously deliver a high-quality experience
Perspectives on workforce readiness and DEI initiatives to ensure the needs of all students—including historically-excluded groups—are addressed
Providing 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
Improvements in operational efficiencies that save resources and refine quality standards
What follows is an edited transcript of this interview. Watch the video above for the full webcast.
Will you start by sharing background on what makes Howard University such a special place?
Dr. Wutoh: At Howard, we have a committed faculty and staff, and our alumni are doing fantastic things. Howard is a unique institution, in part based on how we were founded, where we are as an institution, and the unique role that we play in higher education. We were founded in 1867 right after the Civil War and actually chartered by Congress. At the time we were founded, there was no district government and so the University's charter was done by the U.S. Congress. We're also one of two non-military institutions in the country that receives a direct appropriation from Congress, and that brings us a certain level of attention and uniqueness.
But we also understand that we have a commitment to really serve not just the Washington, D.C. area, which is where we're based, but we see ourselves as a national institution that is contributing to the fabric of the country, training leaders that are going to have an impact in various disciplines nationally and in some cases internationally. That is something that we take as a significant part of our mission and the reason why we were created. It’s also the reason why we have to successfully do the things that we do in preparing students for leadership roles for the future.
You have a strategic plan called “Howard Forward” that is seeing great success. Can you share more about these wins and some of the key initiatives you’re embarking on to carry out this commitment?
Dr. Wutoh: Howard Forward is our current strategic plan and it covers a five-year period of time from 2019 to 2024. As we were conceptualizing the plan and thinking about the goals we wanted to set as an institution and the impact that we wanted to continue to have, we didn't want to create a strategic plan that would then sit on the shelf and not be a meaningful part of what we were doing. We were very intentional in making sure that we were creating goals and metrics that we would evaluate and make public so there would be some level of accountability.
Almost everything that we're doing now, we assign to one of the pillars of Howard Forward. If you look at some of the successes we've had, we've had a nearly 40% increase in enrollment since 2019. We've increased our on-time graduation rate to over 60%, which is over a 15% increase over the last seven years, as well. Our first-year student retention is over 90% for the first time. And we're creating a number of programs that were intentional, that needed to be innovative, that needed to be contemporary; we wanted to make sure that they were interdisciplinary. We have 14 schools and colleges, including an academic health center, a hospital on campus, a radio station, and a television station. Like most other academic institutions, we tended to be very siloed and worked really within our academic units. And so part of what we wanted to accomplish with Howard Forward was to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration across the institution between our schools and colleges and between administrative units as well. And we're measuring that. We're making sure that the investments that we're making institutionally speak to each of the goals and metrics that we're evaluating with Howard Forward.
What advice do you have for consensus building and gaining leadership support and collaboration for new initiatives?
Dr. Wutoh: Our broad intent from a leadership perspective is to encourage more interdisciplinary opportunities and collaboration throughout the institution. As an example, we recently created a Center for Applied Data Science and Analytics. We were intentional not to seed it in one of our existing schools or colleges. We actually formed it out of the Office of the Provost. We currently have faculty all over the University that are engaged in Data Science and Data Analytics who are working in arts and sciences, or in our math and statistics areas, or in engineering and architecture, or in business or in computer sciences as well as other disciplines.
So, we intentionally placed the Center for Applied Data Science and Analytics in the Office of the Provost and created a number of programs and initiatives to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration across the institution.
Another example is our Karsh STEM scholars program. We had started a program modeled after the Meyerhoff Program at UMBC. The idea was to identify young people who would commit to pursuing Ph.D.'s, or MD-Ph.D.'s in any STEM field that they selected, support them through their undergraduate studies, and help them identify outstanding graduate programs so that they would go on to be STEM scientists and new faculty members over the next several years and generations. We were fortunate to be able to get funding from the Karsh Foundation.
The second cohort graduated last year, and we just interviewed for our seventh cohort. These are really outstanding young people who are now in graduate schools at the University of Pennsylvania, at Hopkins, at Stanford, at Georgia Tech. We think that the interdisciplinary, collaborative spirit that we've tried to incentivize as well as Howard's framing around social justice—we like to say social justice is a part of our DNA—creates a unique environment for our students to be successful, to be collaborative, to think about the contributions that they can make to help address these broader societal issues. And it encourages them to think of themselves as leaders, as potential leaders in the various fields that they would aspire to be successful in.
Many universities are struggling with enrollments while Howard is seeing success. From your perspective, what is going into the positive trajectory that you see in student enrollment?
Dr. Wutoh: We've been creating a number of innovative programs that we wanted to make sure would be of interest to students and would support them in terms of developing their full capabilities. We've created programs such as Howard West, now Tech Exchange, which was our partnership with Google wherein we sent a number of computer science students to be in a residential, experiential environment on Google's campus in Mountain View, California. And we sent a group of faculty with them.
The students were taking courses that were taught by Howard faculty and co-taught by Googlers and were engaged in this holistic experiment. It went so successfully to the point that we created a second program.
We created Howard Entertainment, a partnership with Amazon Studios, where we sent a group of law, business, communications and fine arts students to Los Angeles to learn more about the business aspect of the entertainment industry and how they could see themselves in that type of leadership role. Again, the courses were taught by Howard faculty and co-taught by leaders in the entertainment industry, supported by Amazon Studios.
Those types of programs are creating innovation and giving students the opportunity to experience what it is to be in the entertainment industry, to be in the tech industry, and the experience of working with those industry partners with the goal of diversifying those areas.
Having unique, innovative programs, having programs that speak to placing students in successful environments, having outstanding alums that speak to the things that our students will be able to accomplish are all helpful. It’s about being thoughtful about what's coming next. What are the areas that we want to make sure that we're providing educational experiences to our students, whether it's in data science, environmental science, or policy?
We're completely transforming our biomedical sciences and graduate programs, so being thoughtful about making sure that we're creating experiences and creating programs to support the aspirations of our students is important. And to support the workforce, it’s important to consider: What is Google looking for in an employee? What is Amazon Studios looking for?
“It's important to consider what the trends are in terms of hiring that we need to be thoughtful about as we create programs to educate the whole student, but also, make sure that they will have an opportunity to be successful when they leave the University.”
Leaders in higher education tend to talk a lot about enrollment, retention, persistence, and graduation. How does what happens after graduation fit into Howard’s strategic plan?
Dr. Wutoh: We know that we have a significant portion of students who either go on to graduate or professional school. Or certainly they have an interest, or a desire to do so.
One of the things that was also important for us is not just getting students to graduation—which we absolutely need to do and is a priority for us—but also preparing them for their lives after they leave Howard. If their aspiration is to go on to law school or to go on to pharmacy school or to medical school, or to some other graduate or professional program, then part of our responsibility is to make sure that we're providing all the tools for them to be able to do that successfully.
At the onset it was mentioned that we're the leading institution in terms of sending African American students to medical school, but we really believe that we can be even more successful if we are very intentional in terms of making sure that our pre-med students have all the preparation that they need. We want to make sure they are not just doing well in the classroom and in other areas, but they also need to do well on the MCAT®, because that is a significant determinant of admission to medical schools and likewise in other graduate and professional programs.
We want to make sure that our students—in addition to doing well academically and getting their undergraduate degrees—are well-prepared to be successful, whatever graduate or professional program they aspire to. We want to make sure that they will have that opportunity to be considered highly as an applicant. And certainly for our students who go directly into the workforce after graduation, we want to make sure that we're creating as many opportunities for them to be successful. We want them to consider not just, what am I going to do after graduation? But five years after graduation, where do I want to be? Ten years after graduation, where do I want to be? And what sorts of things can I do now, whether those are internships, or certifications? We need to consider what types of things we can do to help make sure that they're as prepared as possible for the career success that they may be envisioning for themselves.
You recently launched Kaplan’s All Access License for Howard University; why did you choose to pursue this? Why was this a priority for you to provide all students with free access to test prep?
Dr. Wutoh: We've had a long-standing relationship with Kaplan, and our law school and several of our other programs had been taking advantage of the opportunities that you offered. When it was raised to us if we wanted to consider this All Access License option, I reached out to all of our deans and asked them is this something that we would find of value?
The response was overwhelmingly ‘absolutely.’ Across the University from our nursing program to our School of Education, our deans indicated that this would bring significant value to our students. One of the things that we have been mindful of is the cost of education and trying to make sure we keep it affordable.
“We serve a number of students, who come from low socio-economic backgrounds. If we can remove the cost of test prep from a student where it would be a potential barrier to them, it really opens up and creates more access.”
This was a no-brainer for us that if we could, at a reasonable price point, create the opportunity for students across the University to be able to benefit from this program and do it in such a way that it not only removes cost as an obstacle but also creates additional incentives for students to be able to prepare to be successful. It was a no-brainer for us to take advantage of it so that we could pass that opportunity on to our students.
Kim Canning: We had many different contracts with Howard through various departments and schools. The operational efficiencies that you gained from moving to All Access as well as being the obvious support for students seemed to be a big win as well.
Dr. Wutoh: Absolutely, and when I mentioned it to our CFO, he was very much in support, in part because of the efficiencies that it would bring, and to decrease the amount of paperwork that is necessary as we enter into these agreements.
And what we've done for our deans and for our schools and colleges is centralize the costs to make it more efficient and to help in terms of the value proposition from the deans' perspective and also the benefit that our students will see. So in a number of ways, it was not just beneficial to our students, which was the primary goal, but also supported the University in our efforts to be more efficient in our administrative processes, as well.
How do you motivate and incentivize students to engage in their community?
Dr. Wutoh: We attract students who overwhelmingly have a desire to contribute to the community and to engage in social consciousness efforts. As an example, one of the things we do during our freshman orientation is we have a day of service. There are a number of projects that we engage in across Washington, D.C., and we leave it available for students to volunteer. We've had between 1,500 and 2,000 freshmen each year over the last several years volunteer. I think the young people, in general, but particularly young people who are attracted to Howard have a sense of commitment. And have a sense of wanting to contribute to something larger.
I see part of our responsibility as making those opportunities available to them and helping provide them with tools.
Regardless of whether a student is in engineering, or is in our medical school, or in our nursing or allied health programs, you will always find some aspect of social justice and some aspect of consciousness in their educational programming. If we didn't do it, students would demand it. That's a commitment from our faculty. I believe we have some of the most engaged and committed faculty and staff, and this is something that they bring to the classroom that the students are really clamoring for and want to participate in.
And we have a way to be able to direct that interest either in an academic way or in a way that is directly related to community service or through one of their clubs or organizations. It's something that was already inherent in our students and we tried to create additional mechanisms and opportunities for them to be able to build upon that.
I'll use our alternative spring break as an example. Shortly following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, we had a group of students who were just so moved by what they saw on TV and the news. They wanted to commit to their spring break, not to go into Cancun or to one of the beaches in Florida, but they wanted to contribute their spring break to going to New Orleans and helping to rebuild and make a difference. And that was the start of our alternative spring break. It's run by students; it's supported and organized in the Office of the Chapel. This past spring break, students went to about 28 different cities around the country, including Flint, Michigan; New Orleans; Baltimore; and Washington.
They also included a group that went to Ghana for the first time and supported a number of activities in Ghana. And this is student-run—the students raised funds for it, the students organized and decided who is going to go to what site.
We provide some of the administrative infrastructure to help facilitate that, but that is entirely student-run, and I think it's really representative of the things that our students are interested in, which is making a contribution and making an impact, whether it's in their home community or a community that needs their services. And it's something that we are very proud of.
How do you support students when it comes to balancing academics and mental health?
Dr. Wutoh: In my conversations with other academic leaders around the country, mental health is probably the number one concern. It was already a concern before COVID, and then you compound the issues with the pandemic, with the social justice protests, and with the concerns regarding our democracy. It really has been a stressful time for our students.
We're doing a number of things: Our Office of Student Affairs oversees our counseling program. We've expanded hiring. We have a 24-hour helpline as well, where we're doing things in terms of using technology, but it's never enough.
“We are constantly thinking about how we can do more, what additional services we can provide to help our students’ mental health. And, I'm frankly concerned given all of the stresses that our students have experienced.”
The other thing that I also want to make sure that we don't forget is the impact that it has had on our faculty and staff.
The last thing I was doing before I joined the webinar was sending out a communication to our faculty and staff in terms of mental health awareness. Both in terms of their own personal mental health and what to do if they observe a student who may be showing signs of concern and what services are available to help support those students and to support themselves.
I think one of the things that we really haven't paid as much attention to as we should is how much the pandemic in the last three years has impacted each of us individually. We need to be conscious about it to be open and willing to seek help and support and to have a support system.
That is both on a personal level, but also on an institutional level. We need to be conscious about what we're doing as an institution and as a community to support our faculty, students, and staff. And how do we take advantage of resources to make them as available and as commonplace as possible?
Funding for new initiatives is often a challenge for universities. Can you share how you’ve been able to support new programs such as Kaplan’s All Access License?
Dr. Wutoh: We were already partnering with Kaplan in a number of our schools and programs, for example with our law school, and we also knew that we had a number of undergraduate students who were doing test prep or were at least looking for access to test prep.
Our CFO did an analysis and looked at what we were paying across our various individual contracts and the number of additional students who would potentially be serviced. A large part of the cost for the All Access License contract would substitute for what we all were already paying for the individual agreements.
Again, we did an analysis considering how many additional students could potentially be served. We felt that from a cost-benefit perspective that it would certainly be well worth our resources to be able to enter into the agreement.
If we hadn't entered into this All Access License, a significant amount of funds would have been going towards supporting the individual school and college contracts. For us, it wasn't necessarily an entirely new expense, as much as it was consolidating individual agreements that we had in place and being more efficient. And also, we’re now providing access to students who wanted to access the services but for whom individual cost would have been an inhibitor.
As we conclude, over the next three to five years, what do you think are the biggest challenges or opportunities for Howard to continue to deliver on student success?
Dr. Wutoh: In terms of our academic programs, we are really looking at the curriculum in each of our programs and in some cases revising them to make sure they are contemporary and are meeting the needs of our students. We also have an increasing number of students who want flexibility, who want to combine this program and that program, or to do multiple things and have more opportunity to do things that may be unique to their areas of interest. It’s about being a little bit more flexible while we're also being interdisciplinary.
We're actually engaging in probably the most significant building and renovation process in the history of the University. We're investing over $750 million in new and renovated academic buildings over the next three to five years. Making sure that we can do that successfully, and that we are creating new academic space, is a top priority. We're creating additional housing for students. While our enrollment has been increasing, it's also creating pressures in other ways that we just need to make sure that we're on top of and that we're addressing as we're continuing to meet the needs of our current students, and plan for what our future students will be looking for and expecting in their experience.
National University Rankings: https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/rankings/national-universities
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