College Persistence + Completion Capstone Project Begins

We just began our second quarter at AC4D and were assigned new teams that will work together to carry out our capstone projects, which will continue through the end of the program in late April 2019. Our new team consists of Susi Brister, Catherine Woodiwiss, and Shelly Stallings, who will be working together alongside our classmates as a whole to research and address the broader topic of college persistence and completion.

Before diving into a project, it’s common to have a kick-off meeting with team members and stakeholders to discuss challenges, hopes and ideas. For Quarter 2, we are partnering with PelotonU, an Austin-based non-profit focused on providing post-secondary educational support, to investigate the changing landscape of college students and their needs.

Sarah Saxton-Frump, the Chief Operating Officer at Peloton U, visited our initial Q2 class to help us understand the challenges faced by current post-traditional students as well as how PelotonU serves these needs. While they are partnering with us on the first 8-week research stage of the project, we are encouraged to think broadly about this problem area, rather than considering them a client with strict business constraints.


Catherine Woodiwiss and Shelly Stallings work side-by-side to refine our team’s research plan.

As a small team of three, we had a project kick-off meeting and started with getting to know each other by comparing preferences for working styles and considering our various team roles, strengths, and personal challenges that we wanted to work on this quarter.

Next, we worked together to create a research plan, and to craft a particular research focus that we were all excited about. Because the topic college persistence and completion is so broad it leaves a lot of room for exploration, but also a lot of overwhelming ambiguity in terms of where to begin.

During the week’s team meetings, we defined three team roles – project manager, physical asset and environment manager, and communications manager. We want to ensure that communication issues and late deliverables do not quickly become the only conversation in regular status meetings and that we aren’t individually duplicating work or unknowingly letting tasks fall through the cracks. We also decided that we would shift these roles through each quarter of the remaining program, to give each of us the opportunity to fulfill each position.


Making sense of our research plan in the early stages.

At the end of the first week of the project, we have refined our research focus and created a work plan, which serves as a comprehensive document that outlines the scope of our research and exactly how we would conduct interviews with research participants.

After a few group discussions and feedback from faculty, we realized that we are all really interested in how culture, community, and family influence the choices young people make and the challenges they face when thinking about post-secondary education. We are also interested in the particular population of first-generation Americans, and their experiences with growing up in the US but with strong family ties to other ethnic backgrounds, and how that unique experience affects the role of post-secondary education in their lives. We intend to speak with first-generation Americans ages 18-25 to learn how individuals in this population feel about the idea of college, what role culture and family play in shaping expectations and beliefs about post-secondary education, as well as general motivations and challenges they face with pursuing education and/or their plans for the future. We hope to speak with young first-generation Americans from a variety of ethnic backgrounds to understand differences in cultural/community expectations, and are interested in stories from individuals who have entered into some form of post-secondary education and from those who have not.

When we introduced our initial research focus statement to Jon Kolko, he asked how to consider how we would define success for our group research. This was a key question to ask ourselves and has become a grounding force while facing the complexity and chaos of the ‘fuzzy front end’ of a major research project. For us, success for this portion of our capstone project would mean learning how first generation Americans starting out in their adult lives after high school feel about going to college (or not) and then being able to apply that valuable information to the broader context of college persistence and completion, or even more broadly, to providing services that meet the needs of that population, whether college is part of that equation or not.

Our research plan link: