Supporting a Rural, First-Generation College Improvement Network

College students in a lab

By Louise Yarnall and Debbie Shaver
April 4, 2022

When a group of West Virginia educators set a goal of doubling the number of STEM college graduates statewide in a decade, they faced long odds. With one of the nation’s lowest rates of college attainment, West Virginia postsecondary institutions accept a high number of students who are the first in their families to attend college. These educators believed they could improve student success by providing greater support to STEM majors from first-generation and underrepresented backgrounds in their first 2 years of college. Calling themselves the First2 Network, they recruited multiple rural colleges to come together as a community to test out new approaches and learn from each other’s experiences. They then turned to SRI Education to help them use “improvement science”—a method of organizational change—to transform their higher education system to support STEM persistence and degree attainment.

SRI has worked closely with the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, which builds and maintains First2’s infrastructure to facilitate collaboration across 23 education, government, industry, and nonprofit member organizations. SRI has been supporting network members to use Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycles to improve practices through small-scale testing of changes to practices both inside and outside of the classroom. Each PDSA cycle begins with a written plan for implementing a change and collecting data. Next, members carry out the plan and document the results. In the “study” stage, members examine the results to decide how to proceed in the final “act” stage. With multiple colleges testing different variations of supports for first-gen and underrepresented STEM students at the same time, the network can quickly build evidence for effective practices.

Early in the project, key First2 members attended trainings by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching to learn the basics of improvement science, and SRI has provided ongoing training and resources on using PDSA cycles to test change ideas (see a sample here). Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, First2 members have conducted 64 PDSA cycles since the project launched in summer 2018. This growing engagement represented a positive sign, particularly during the pandemic. An external evaluation found that First2 participants found they could continue to collect PDSA data in virtual settings.1

To identify strengths and areas for improvement, SRI conducted an analysis of all documented PDSA cycles and met with the coaches supporting network members on the work. Analyses and reflections revealed several issues:

  • Many change ideas tested through PDSA cycles were not well-aligned with First2’s larger plan of how to change the higher education system.
  • The thoroughness and quality of the PDSA cycles varied widely.

From the First2 experience, SRI has developed some techniques that can help improve the application of improvement science in a learning community that includes multiple education institutions:

  • Engage participants early on in a series of workshops that help everyone understand the core aims and goals of the systems change effort.
  • Take the time to identify participants’ views of the systemic causes of the challenges that students face.
  • Articulate a vision for the new system and list the changes needed.
  • Supplement network-wide workshops with individualized coaching for member institutions on PDSA cycles.
  • Collect student outcome data from multiple institutions and share promising results of system change across the network.

Providing technical assistance to First2 has required SRI to be nimble and responsive to changing conditions. Throughout the project, we have focused on listening and observing, conducting critical audits as needed, and spearheading efforts to focus and renew the improvement science process. To learn more about SRI’s improvement science assistance, read about the work of the NSF INCLUDES National Network.


1 Howley, C.W., Campbell, J., Cowley, K., & Cook, K. (2021). Evaluation of the First2 Network, Year 3. ICF.

Topics: Access and equity First-generation college students Low income Rural