Digital Engagement: Driving Student Success

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A digital engagement strategy based on integrated student-centered uses of technology and collection of data has already shown its promise in improving student retention and graduation rates.

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Rosemary Hayes is director of External Relations for Starfish Retention Solutions.

Poor retention and completion rates symptomize the challenges colleges and universities face in their attempts to meet the needs and aspirations of diverse student populations. Early models of student attrition identified numerous student factors and characteristics that increase the likelihood a student will not complete college (i.e., at-risk characteristics). Institutions have used this information to develop programs and implement technology to target these specific factors and to mitigate risks. The functional units that provide the services and manage the data typically operate within organizational silos, however, with all the complications this separation of efforts can introduce.

Despite the benefits these risk-mitigation programs offer students, they have not significantly improved student retention and completion rates. According to Vincent Tinto and Brian Pusser,1 this failure indicates that we must rethink our focus on student attributes and examine how the whole organization can better engage in promoting student success. This article explores the problems underlying the college student success challenge, limitations of the current approaches, and a digital engagement strategy that institutions can implement to support improvements in student outcomes.

The State of College Student Success

Students enter colleges and universities with high aspirations — ninety percent of them intend to complete their degree or certificate2 — and important economic payoffs accrue to students who complete certificates and degrees. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center,3 students who earn a college degree or certificate outperform their peers who have only a high school diploma on every important measure of economic well-being and career attainment, including earnings and rates of unemployment.

Student aspirations stand in stark contrast to the reality of poor national measures of student progression and attainment. According to a report by Complete College America,4 only 40 percent of students required to take remedial courses complete them; of these students, only 10 percent at community colleges and 33 percent at four-year institutions go on to earn degrees or certificates. The latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics5 shows that 59 percent of first-time, full-time freshmen complete a bachelor's degree within six years, and 31 percent of community college students complete a degree or certificate within 150 percent of their program time.

Given these poor outcomes, improving student success is an important goal for the nation and higher education. George Kuh et al. broadly defined student success as academic achievement; engagement in educationally purposeful activities; satisfaction; acquisition of desired knowledge, skills, and competencies; persistence; attainment of educational objectives; and post-college performance.6 Institutions and stakeholders in higher education, on the other hand, often think of student success in terms of performance indicators such as grade point average, term retention rates, annual retention rates, certificate attainment figures, transfer rates, and graduation rates.

Increasingly, colleges and universities are held accountable for their performance on measures of student success, particularly student completion metrics. For accountability purposes, institutions must — either by law or regulation — submit data to federal, regional, and state agencies, which, in turn, tie funding to these indicators of student success. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 30 states either already use or have begun to implement performance funding.7 In addition, the federal Postsecondary Institutional Rating System, which seeks to use metrics such as retention, completion, and loan default rates, will "tie financial aid to college performance."8

Understanding Student Factors in the Attainment Gap

Research over the past 40 years has focused on understanding and modeling student retention and persistence. Much of the foundational research in the field of student success addresses the role of student attributes (e.g., characteristics, academic skills, and noncognitive factors) in student attrition. Tinto's heavily referenced early Model of Student Integration,9 when joined with Bean's Model of Student Attrition,10 provides a holistic view of the primary factors that shape attrition and student actions in college.11

Although Tinto's thinking about student attrition has evolved since 1975, his early model, which resonated with higher education professionals, points to the academic and social integration of the student as necessary elements in student completion. What figured heavily in the student's ability to integrate successfully into college were student factors such as family background, academic ability, educational goals, and commitment to college. Bean also emphasized the external factors that affect students but lie outside the control of higher education institutions: background variables, organizational variables, environmental variables, and attitudinal and outcome variables — all of which have direct or indirect effects on student attrition. These factors all contributed to whether the student–institution match made a good fit.

Other researchers have identified additional student factors that affect student attrition, including financial ability, student–institution fit, first-generation status, self-discipline, family demands, high school GPA, academic commitment, college grades, and other academic behaviors.12 Laura Horn and C. Dennis Carroll identified seven factors that put students at risk for not completing college: delaying enrollment into postsecondary education, attending part-time, being financially independent for purposes of financial aid, working full-time while enrolled, having dependents other than a spouse, being a parent, and having obtained a GED instead of a high school diploma. They also found that students with more of these student characteristics faced a higher risk of attrition.13

It has been suggested that to improve student success, we must examine the structure and policies of the institution and the role those play in student success and engagement.14 Kuh et al. stated that this engagement represents an intersection within the student success field that both students and institutions can actually affect.15 Evidence shows that such engagement practices — a focus on the things that can actually be influenced — have statistically significant effects on first- and second-year grades and persistence, as well as compensatory effects for underserved students.16 High levels of engagement are associated with a number of purposeful education practices centered on communication and collaboration among students, faculty, and staff.

Fragmented Efforts to Improve Student Success

In practice, institutions continue to strongly emphasize student attributes when defining their student success strategies. This has led to a fragmented approach in which a student's problem is tackled almost independently of the student. The resulting inefficiency is evidenced by discrete program design and management, limited coordination and communication about retention issues, and pervasive data silos.

Discrete Program Design and Management

Early research emphasizing the student's role in attrition has influenced the tactical approach to improve student success. In both the 2004 and 2010 ACT reports "What Works in Student Retention?" survey respondents overwhelmingly specified student factors over institutional factors when asked to identify the underlying causes of student attrition.17 Institutions agreed that student factors such as unpreparedness, low income, first-generation status, and poor social integration play the most significant roles in student attrition.

Institutions have developed targeted programs to address attrition based on these factors. Habley et al. identified more than 90 programs and practices in use to address student retention issues, including freshman seminars, living–learning communities, financial literacy programs, tutoring, advising for special populations, supplemental instruction, programs for subpopulations, learning labs, and residence hall programs.18 The ownership and management of these interventions are decentralized, with student issues handled by the department or unit that seems best organized to address a particular issue or difficulty. Students receive tutoring or supplemental instruction within academic departments; students with financial problems are referred to financial aid for money management classes; low-income/first-generation students may be referred to a campus TRiO program, and so forth.

According to Frank Shushok and Eileen Hulme, much of the theory in student retention today has evolved from psychological models developed in the 1970s that addressed life/work coping problems.19 With the exception of research on engagement, educators continue to "keep an eye toward pathology — focusing on repairing student problems; honing in on why students leave rather than why students stay."20

Limited Coordination and Communication about Retention

In decentralized environments fragmentation of effort occurs more frequently in the absence of a plan to coordinate and communicate about ways to address retention issues. Despite attempts by colleges and universities to organize themselves to support student retention, more investment and commitment are needed. A national study of student retention practices supported by the College Board showed that even given a perception that "someone" coordinates retention efforts, little time actually goes to such efforts.21 In this study, 75 percent of respondents reported that someone at their institution had responsibility for coordinating efforts and information about retention. When asked what percentage of this person's position was formally committed to these duties, the majority of institutions reported zero percent. Other institutions reported that some of this person's time was dedicated to these efforts, with the full range from one percent to 100 percent, with a mean of 35 percent. According to higher education consulting company Noel-Levitz, one-third of four-year public and private institutions, despite reporting that they had implemented many accepted retention programs, were not making efforts to build agreement among faculty, staff, and administrators about retention and completion concerns. In the same study, nearly half of respondents at community colleges described their institutions' efforts to build understanding and agreement on retention issues as minimally effective.22

Pervasive Data Silos

Not only does communication fail to cross organizational and functional boundaries, but vital information remains isolated as well. Data generated by advising, tutoring, early-alert, and departmental programs stays trapped within organizational and data silos. Student information systems (SISs) collect and store data, including student admission characteristics, course-taking patterns, and grades, while learning management systems (LMSs) collect and store information on students' online behaviors, login frequencies, quiz and assignment grades, and contributions to course discussion boards. Program administrators use desktop databases to capture information on students who receive support in their programs, especially grant-funded programs. Tutoring applications and online coaching services capture data. Advising departments receive technical support through advising-related screens created in the SIS or advising systems. A variety of interventions exist, from online surveys to well-integrated systems intended to serve in an early-alert capacity. All of this data, when trapped in disparate data stores, has marginal usefulness to the institution — and it does not help the institution support and engage students.

Where Fragmented Approaches Lead

The consequences of this fragmented approach follow.

Limited Traction on Student Outcomes. Higher education cannot claim significant gains in student persistence and success: According to the National Student Clearinghouse, of all students who started college in any institutional sector in fall 2012, 68.7 percent returned to college at any U.S. institution in fall 2013, with 58.2 percent returning to the same institution. Retention rates declined between the fall cohorts of 2009 and 2012 by 1.4 percent for first-time, full-time cohorts and 0.3 percent for first-time, part-time cohorts. Similar declines marked full- and part-time cohorts at private institutions. Decreases in retention also affected community colleges, where retention rates over the same period dropped by 2.2 percent for first-time, full-time cohorts and 1.0 percent for first-time, part-time cohorts.23

The lack of improvement in student outcomes does not imply that student success interventions lack usefulness or benefits for students.24 Instead, it indicates that institutions must shift their attention from responding to student attributes alone (i.e., classic at-risk indicators) to evaluating exactly how their policies and structures affect student success. In addition, institutions must establish "interconnected learning support networks, early warning systems, and safety nets" that function as intended.25

Incomplete Picture of Student Success. For those working directly with students, such as academic advisors and program staff, this fragmented approach makes it difficult, if not impossible, to view students in a holistic and efficient way. Students must be encouraged to engage with peers at campus events and in organizations and to invest effort in educational behaviors that promote learning and improved outcomes.26 To provide students with informed and meaningful encouragement, faculty and professional advisors must quickly see student information within the context of the entire institution. This means determining not just where a student is having difficulty but also where he or she is improving, engaging, and excelling.27

The limitations of a fragmented approach extend beyond the inability to see a complete picture of an individual student. Executive decision makers must see the broad picture of the student population's success at their institutions. Understanding the common difficulties that students experience is an important piece of the puzzle, but, equally important, the institution must learn more about why students stay. To make meaningful progress on student success, institutions must "contextualize student outcomes and look carefully at the role of institutional policy and practice in student retention."28 This is difficult to do in a fragmented environment with data silos and poor coordination and communication processes.

Inefficient Use of Valuable Resources. Faculty time, staff time, and administrator time are valuable and finite resources. A fragmented approach to student success initiatives results in duplicated effort, more levels of complexity, and more time spent on information management, reported by McAleese and Taylor. Failure to coordinate and track the support provided to students can lead to confusion about which department or person is handling a problem, an inability to prioritize student assistance, and information overload.29

A fragmented approach also fails to optimize the large investments the institution has made in campus technologies, including the SIS and LMS, as well as other systems that collect and store valuable information. Collectively, data such as socioeconomic information, attendance records, grades, and nonacademic information can tell an important story about students and their interactions with the institution. Data stored in disparate places makes it difficult for an institution to coordinate the delivery of interventions, to see the connections between student interventions and outcomes, and to uncover ways to organize institutional policies and structures to better support student success. These are just some of the reasons why the EDUCAUSE IT Issues Panel for 2013–2014 identified as its top concern the development of an institutional approach that strategically uses technology to improve student outcomes.30

Lost Opportunities for Building Academic and Student Support Partnerships. The organizational structures of institutions can inhibit people from seeing important interactions and relationships. Within the institution are many loosely coupled organizations operating in parallel: business operations, technology services, student services, schools, and colleges. When rigid internal divisions are enforced, inquiry and cooperation across divisional boundaries are limited.31 Discussions about student success can traverse the vertical structures of an institution when we focus on the shared objective of helping students learn and excel academically.32 Partnerships between the academic and the student support sides of the house have succeeded where integrated data was used in decision making and collaboration.33 Insufficient dialogue between student support services and academics on how to support learning — and thus students — represents a lost opportunity for the institution to work toward becoming a learning organization.

A Way Forward: A Digital Engagement Strategy for Student Success

Technology can be used to support the engagement of the entire campus in student success. The key is to use technology in ways that make information accessible; decision making and communication about students more comprehensive; and interactions among the faculty, staff, and administration easier. This means finding a way for technology to bridge the organizational and structural divides of institutional units, programs, and data. Such a technological foundation greatly supports engagement.

The definition of student engagement has gone through many iterations. One definition by Kuh offers a useful starting place: "Student engagement represents the time and effort that students devote to activities that are empirically linked to college outcomes and what institutions do to induce students to engage in those activities."34 This definition is important for several reasons.

  • First, it does not just focus on students; it also implies the involvement of institutions in the process.
  • Second, it does not focus on student problems; it refers to students engaged in activities and behaviors that will lead to the desired outcomes.
  • Third, although the definition does not focus on student attributes and characteristics, the fact that institutions should "induce" students to take action implies that institutions must understand both their student populations and specific students. For example, if a good number of students who struggle academically are also working single parents, encouraging them to visit advising offices with inflexible hours might not be effective. In this respect, engagement also means the institution demonstrating its commitment to student achievement through its awareness of student needs and by providing support to help students stay on course.

Digital engagement — or the "use of technology and channels to find and mobilize a community around an issue and take action"35 — is the logical extension of these ideas. In this context, digital engagement involves using data and online tools to inform and motivate the entire campus community in order to underscore its student success efforts and drive change in completion outcomes. There is little evidence that ad hoc efforts intended to address one aspect of student success will result in major improvements in student outcomes; rather, "collective impact initiatives" are most effective.36 These efforts are driven by a common purpose and supported by a backbone organization, processes for communication, and shared measurements.37 Through this coordination the efforts of advisors, faculty, student support staff, and administrators become additive.38 The focus on engagement — on supporting student efforts to achieve academic and learning objectives — can become the shared objective of academic affairs and student affairs.

Shifting from Technology-Centered to Student-Centered

The vast amount of data institutions collect about their students loses value if it cannot be used to create a holistic view of them. Information is essential to engage students with the right support at the right time. One of the most important things institutional technology leaders can do in working toward student success is help the campus community understand the value of the data that lives in disparate campus data stores. Certainly, those with access to individual systems can peer into them and get some answers. The challenge is in seeing how the activities and interventions relate to outcomes. This technology system–centered approach makes it difficult to uncover the relationships among the data that, taken together, provide critical insight into the plans, progress, and needs of individual students. A single sign-on to disparate systems does not fix this problem.

A digital engagement strategy for student success requires a student-centered approach to data. This means using technology in a way that focuses on the student, not on the system that generated the data. A campus-wide system could provide a complete picture by integrating the campus data around the individual student. This approach not only makes it easier for professional and faculty advisors to support students, but it also facilitates a greater understanding of the relationships between the students, their college experiences, and the outcomes. It recognizes the value of the different approaches that tutors, TRiO specialists, the writing center, and advisors use to support students. Conrad et al. and Achieving the Dream have found that use of data as a basis for discussion about strategies to improve student outcomes allows faculty and staff to work together productively.39 Appropriate technology makes data collection and integration straightforward and places a priority on security concerns, enabling only the right people at the institution to help the right students, and protecting student privacy.

With a combination of holistic data and permission rules as a foundation, the right technology platform provides a series of highly integrated features that use student-centered data to identify at-risk students, offer academic advising and planning, and facilitate connections to campus support. Loralyn Taylor and Virginia McAleese reported in 2012 that this approach has demonstrated significant improvements in student grades, persistence, and graduation rates.40 Independently, these capabilities have all been identified as big-impact practices for student success and shown to support students and promote positive student persistence outcomes.41 When brought together as part of an enterprise approach, student-centered data and technology form the basis of an institution's digital engagement strategy.

The Enterprise View of Student Success

Student success is arguably the most important issue facing today's higher education institutions. The implementation of programmatic and technological interventions outside a cohesive digital engagement strategy leads to fragmentation and merely continues the technology system–centered approach to data. In fact, a study at one institution found that this ad hoc approach added levels of complexity that made new initiatives unmanageable.42

Changing to a student-centered approach that sees data in the context of improving student outcomes requires a paradigm shift.43 Comprehensive data is an important tool for strategic and collaborative efforts between the academic affairs and student support areas.44 A carefully designed enterprise technology solution does more than simply tie together disparate applications via single sign-on. The platform must

  • provide a single view of all student data,
  • respect role- and relationship-based permissions,
  • integrate student data into additional native applications, and
  • support unique applications developed by third-party organizations or the institution itself.

Having a holistic view of students makes student success efforts more personal, more collaborative, more effective, and more scalable — all essential for evaluating results and identifying how better to engage with students.

  1. Vincent Tinto and Brian Pusser, Moving From Theory to Action: Building a Model of Institutional Action for Student Success (Washington, DC: National Postsecondary Education Cooperative, 2006).
  2. Noel-Levitz, LLC, National Freshman Attitudes Report (Coralville, Iowa: Noel-Levitz, 2013).
  3. Pew Research Center, "Pew Research Social and Demographic Trends," February 11, 2014.
  4. Complete College America, "Remediation: The Bridge to Nowhere" (Washington, DC: Complete College America, 2012).
  5. National Center for Education Statistics, Conditions of Education, May 2014.
  6. George D. Kuh, Jillian Kinzie, Jennifer Buckley, Brian Bridgers, and John Hayek, What Matters to Student Success: A Review of the Literature (Washington, DC: National Postsecondary Education Cooperative, 2006).
  7. National Conference of State Legislatures, Performance-based Funding for Higher Education, March 5, 2014.
  8. U.S. Department of Education, "Request for Information To Gather Technical Expertise Pertaining to Data Elements, Metrics, Data Collection, Weighting, Scoring, and Presentation of a Postsecondary Institution Ratings System," Federal Register, December 17, 2013.
  9. Vincent Tinto, "Dropout from Higher Education: A Theoretical Synthesis of Recent Research," Review of Educational Research, vol. 45 (1975): 89–125.
  10. John P. Bean, "Dropouts and Turnover: The Synthesis and Test of a Causal Model of Student Attrition," Research in Higher Education, vol. 12, no. 2 (1980): 155–187.
  11. Jeremy Burrus, Diane Elliott, Meghan Brenneman, Ross Markle, Lauren Carney, Gabrielle Moore, Anthony Betancourt, Teresa Jackson, Steve Robbins, Patrick Kyllonen, and Richard D. Roberts, Putting and Keeping Students on Track: Toward a Comprehensive Model of College Persistence and Goal Attainment (Princeton, N.J.: ETS, 2013).
  12. Alexander Astin, What Matters in College? Four Critical Years Revisited (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993); Ernest T. Pascarella and Patrick T. Terenzini, How College Affects Students: Findings and Insights (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991); and Tinto and Pusser, Moving from Theory to Action.
  13. Laura Horn and C. Dennis Carroll, Nontraditional Undergraduates, Trends in Enrollment from 1986 to 1992 and Persistence and Attainment Among 1989–90 Beginning Postsecondary Students, (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics, 1996).
  14. Kuh et al., What Matters to Student Success; and Tinto and Pusser, Moving from Theory to Action.
  15. Kuh et al., What Matters to Student Success.
  16. George D. Kuh, Ty M. Cruce, Rick Shoup, Jillian Kinzie, and Robert M. Gonyea, "Unmasking the Effects of Student Engagement on First-Year College Grades and Persistence," Journal of Higher Education, vol. 79, no. 5 (September/October 2008): 540–563.
  17. Wesley Habley and Randy McClanahan, What Works in Student Retention? (Iowa City: ACT, 2004); and Wesley Habley, Michael Valiga, Randy McClanahan, and Kurt Burkum, What Works in Student Retention? (Iowa City: ACT, 2010).
  18. Habley et al., What Works in Student Retention? (2010).
  19. Frank Shushok, Jr. and Eileen Hulme, "Helping Students Find and Use Their Personal Strengths," About Campus (September/October 2006): 2–8.
  20. Ibid., p. 3.
  21. Don Hossler, Afet Dadashova, Mary Ziskin, Jerome A. Lucido, and Scott Andrew Schulz, "A National Survey of Student Retention Practices," presentation at 2010 AIR Forum, Association for Institution Research (2010).
  22. Noel-Levitz, LLC, Student Retention and Completion Report for Four-Year and Two-Year Institutions (Coralville, Iowa: Noel-Levitz, 2013).
  23. National Student Clearinghouse, "First-Year Persistence and Retention Rates by Starting Enrollment Intensity" (2014).
  24. Tinto and Pusser, Moving from Theory to Action.
  25. Kuh et al., "Unmasking the Effects of Student Engagement."
  26. Ibid.
  27. Shushok and Hulme, "Helping Students Find and Use Their Personal Strengths."
  28. Hossler et al., "A National Survey of Student Retention Practices."
  29. Virginia McAleese and Loralyn Taylor, "Successful Initiation of a Campus-wide Comprehensive Student Support System," in Proceedings of the 7th National Symposium on Student Retention, 2011, Charleston, Rosemary Hayes, ed. (Norman, OK: The University of Oklahoma, 2011); 33–44.
  30. Susan Grajek, "Top 10 IT Priorities 2014: Be the Change You See," EDUCAUSE Review, March/April 2014.
  31. Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, 1990).
  32. Richard Keeling, Ric Underhile, and Andrew Wall, "The Dynamics of Organization in Higher Education," Liberal Education, vol. 93, no. 4 (2007), Association of American Colleges and Universities: 22–31.
  33. Clifton Conrad, Marybeth Gaston, Todd Lundberg, Felicia Commodore, and Andres Castro Samayoa, Using Educational Data to Increase Learning, Retention, and Degree Attainment at Minority Serving Institutions (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, 2013).
  34. George D. Kuh, "What Student Affairs Professionals Need to Know About Student Engagement," Journal of College Student Development, vol. 50, no. 6 (November/December 2009): 683–706; see p. 683.
  35. Jasper Visser and Jim Richardson, Digital Engagement in Culture, Heritage, and the Arts (2013).
  36. John Kania and Mark Kramer, "Collective Impact," Stanford Social Innovation Review (Winter 2011).
  37. Achieving the Dream, "Promising Practices: 2011 Leader Colleges" (2011).
  38. Loralyn Taylor and Virginia McAleese, "Beyond Retention: Using Targeted Analytics to Improve Student Success," EDUCAUSE Review Online (July 18, 2012).
  39. Conrad et al., Using Educational Data; and Achieving the Dream, "Promising Practices."
  40. Taylor and McAleese, "Beyond Retention."
  41. Bi Vuong and Christen Cullum Hairston, Using Data to Improve Minority-Serving Institution Success (Washington, DC: Institute of Higher Education Policy, 2012); Center for Community College Student Engagement, A Matter of Degrees: Engaging Practices, Engaging Students (High-Impact Practices for Community College Student Engagement) (Austin, TX: University of Texas at Austin, Community College Leadership Program, 2013); Kuh et al., What Matters to Student Success; and Tinto and Pusser, Moving from Theory to Action.
  42. McAleese and Taylor, "Successful Initiation of a Campus-wide Comprehensive Student Support System."
  43. Vuong and Hairston, Using Data to Improve Minority-Serving Institution Success.
  44. Conrad et al., Using Educational Data; and Achieving the Dream, "Promising Practices."