7 Recommendations for Student Success Initiatives

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On September 25 and 26, the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative sponsored an online event, "Addressing Student Success: Exploring Technology-Enabled Advising," that hosted 25 presenters for 19 sessions to take an in-depth look into efforts at various campuses to increase rates of student retention and degree completion, particularly through the lens of academic advising.

Rising costs, greater accountability, changing student demographics, and other factors have contributed to a higher education climate increasingly focused on the number of students who not only enroll in college but also are able to complete an academic credential in a timely manner. IT tools and systems have a role to play in these efforts, as do culture, process, and leadership. This event brought together representatives from colleges and universities involved in various initiatives to promote student success, as well as from organizations committed to these goals. Following are seven of the key messages we took away from this event.

  1. Pay attention to the tools.
    The market for IT applications and services that support student success is vibrant and growing. The area of technology-enabled advising, in particular, features a wide range of options. Gates Bryant and Nicholas Java of Tyton Partners presented a preliminary report on a recent institutional survey of satisfaction with advising models. Their results demonstrated that institutions perceive integration of the various systems that must support the advising process as a critical challenge. Two conditions make integration challenging: the market is continuing to evolve rapidly, with many more products being added for consideration, and the requisite cross-departmental coordination does not represent a part of the culture at many institutions. Tiffany Mfume described how Morgan State University has used three tools — EAB's Student Success Collaborative, Hobsons Starfish Retention Solutions, and Ellucian Degree Works — and how faculty and staff use the tools to keep students apprised of how they are doing. In the case of Morgan State, deploying and integrating three applications was the right approach for their needs.

    Morgan State University has adopted a best-of-breed approach to student success, having integrated EAB's Student Success Collaborative, Hobsons Starfish Retention Solutions, and Ellucian Degree Works to provide analytics, early alerts, and advising services to the campus.
  2. Don't fixate on the tools.
    Although particular technologies are often part of any student success initiative, technology alone isn't going to get an institution to its goals. At least as important are culture and change management. Kelly Casperson shared how Northeast Wisconsin Technical College deployed, refined, integrated, and assessed an early-alert system. NWTC worked with a pilot group of faculty, connecting the use of the system to professional advancement program for faculty. It also provided consistent campus-wide communication to broadly engage the community and keep the importance of the work they were doing at the forefront. Philip Needles of Montgomery County Community College echoed the importance of culture change when implementing an early-alert system that replaced a transactional relationship between students and advisors with one focused on collaboration. Christopher Romano of Ramapo College of New Jersey observed that structure should follow strategy, not the other way 'round — squeezing strategy into the wrong structure is a recipe for failure. Karen Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, explained that transforming the student experience must rest on a base of structural, process, and attitudinal change. Technology is not the reform in technology-enabled advising reform. Rather, it is the systems, processes, and institutional culture.

    When implementing its student success tools, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College devoted time to the cultural dimensions of the changes and cultivated engagement with the campus community.
  3. Unpack and simplify complex systems.
    At many institutions, the requirements and pathways to degree completion have, over time, become complicated, especially so for first-generation college students and others with limited preparation in navigating educational systems. A central focus of technology-enabled advising is to provide students with a clear, current map to the achievement of a degree. Part of that work is creating less-convoluted pathways, as in the case of Georgia State University, which had a huge range of majors and courses without much direction. According to GSU's Timothy Renick, this resulted in persistent achievement gaps, excess credits, and slow rates to graduation. GSU's efforts included unraveling this complexity, resulting in significant increases in student success, particularly for demographic groups whose outcomes had historically been relatively poor. Austin Community College incorporated a pathways approach in which students choose from among 10 "tracks" that maintain progress toward completion, even without declaring a major. David Knapp described Whatcom Community College's implementation of Degree Planner, which, among other functions, provides insight to the institution about which courses need to be available in upcoming semesters. Bridget Burns, from the University Innovation Alliance, discussed how process mapping has been used successfully as a basis to unravel processes and look at them from a student-centered perspective.

    An important benefit of the implementation of Degree Planner at Whatcom Community College is the information it provides to the institution about course scheduling to meet students' curricular needs in upcoming semesters.
  4. Centralize information and support.
    Exacerbating the problems of complex systems is the fact that many colleges and universities have disparate, disjointed systems for student advising and services. Several presenters highlighted the value of creating a one-stop shop or a single point of contact, both for students and for faculty and advisors. The University of Hawaii developed a single system for degree planning, registration, and audits called STAR, which resulted in information and offerings that are consistent, accurate, and logical. Northern Arizona University implemented a tool called Jacks Planner that provides students with an interactive tool that tells them where they are and how to get where they want to go. It also allows prospective students to see how courses they have taken elsewhere would fit into a degree program at NAU. Ramapo College streamlined a previously disconnected approach to advising into a single Student Success Network, which coordinates more than a dozen support services and functions into a single view for students.

    At Northern Arizona University, students can use a single advising tool, called Jacks Planner, to see pathways toward their degrees and to manage their courses and progress toward their educational goals.
  5. Incorporate complementary efforts.
    On their journey to improve student success, colleges and universities can choose from among a broad variety of resources. Many of the institutions represented in this event are recipients of grants from the iPASS Grant Challenge program, and many are also part of the Achieving the Dream network. The Community College Research Center shared the work they have done to understand how institutions are rolling out technologies to improve outcomes for students. Among their findings are that for these efforts to successfully scale, success has to be everyone's responsibility, the institution has to have a clear vision, and leadership has to be multitiered and aligned. Through the Core Data Service and its Benchmarking Service, EDUCAUSE provides data and tools that can also contribute to institutional efforts at improving student success.

  6. Cultivate new partnerships.
    Rethinking educational models calls for new relationships with a diverse group of partners, including other institutions. Arizona State University's Michael Crow spoke about the need to move away from the industrial age, one-size-fits-all model of education toward one that focuses on inclusion rather than exclusion. This will require a new mindset and new partnerships, including for higher education to stop doing certain things discretely at every institution. Representatives from the University of Florida echoed this sentiment in their call for greater collaboration across the institution and for partnerships with other organizations. One such partnership is between EDUCAUSE and the Association for Institutional Research, which the leaders of those two organizations described as critical for student success efforts.

  7. Commit to investment.
    Any effort to improve student success will require resources — for IT tools and infrastructure, change management programs, and, often, for new staff. Several of the presenters talked about the numbers of new staff and administrative positions that were created to support these initiatives. In the case of Middle Tennessee State University, for example, the hiring of 47 new advisors decreased the institution's number of students per advisor from 1,200–1,500 down to 260, which was a central component of the effort to dramatically increase the amount of contact students have with their advisor. The clear message regarding these and other costs of student success initiatives was to prove that money spent on such programs represents an investment, one with clear, quantifiable benefits. Several presenters noted that even though their institution had to come up with considerable sums of money, they were able to demonstrate that the direct and indirect financial benefits of those investments — largely from retaining students who might otherwise have dropped out or stopped out — exceeded the costs, often in a relatively short period of time.

    Middle Tennessee State University invested in people, hiring 47 new advisors and significantly increasing the amount of contact students have with their advisors.

Improving student success will take time, money, and effort, and it will challenge some longstanding aspects of how higher education does what it does. It's an important undertaking, one that highlights the interconnectedness of colleges and universities, as well as the organizations that support them. This event is part of EDUCAUSE programs to illuminate the opportunities and obstacles surrounding student success initiatives. EDUCAUSE members and those who attended the event can access recordings and other resources from the agenda page.

Nancy Millichap is program officer and Gregory Dobbin is senior editor at EDUCAUSE.

© 2017 Nancy Millichap and Gregory Dobbin. The text of this article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0.