Why ‘Student Success’ Isn’t Always Succeeding

Examining Effective Approaches to New Initiatives at the Diana G. Oblinger Innovation Forum

min read
photo of people in an auditorium raising their hands, with blog title overlaid on it

Andy Clark and I first met when I was an education sector leader at Oracle, and Andy was VP of Enrollment Management, Marketing and Communications at Valdosta State University in southern Georgia. At that time, there was a lot of buzz in edtech circles about predictive analytics being the savior of higher education, principally around the often-dismal graduation/completion/matriculation rates among many two- and four-year colleges and universities. The concept was appealing: use emerging technologies in data science and predictive analytics to bring together the vast trove of data that most institutions have on students, and use that data to make predictions about where they will struggle to improve student success.

Company after company was founded (and funded) to further this objective, and several have become household names in higher education circles. Over the past several years, these tools have matured and been refined through real-world application, and some have become quite sophisticated and flexible, such that they can adapt over time to nuances and unique characteristics that are specific to a given institution. The insights they can provide can be very enlightening.

Incremental Progress Leads to Major Change

There is good data to support the efficacy of even achieving incremental improvements in retention and completion — not only in the impact on students' long term earnings potential and career aspirations, but also in the economic 'health' of the institution that institutes these improvements. A recent study of 1,669 colleges and universities found that lost revenue due to attrition amounted to roughly $16.5 billion, ranging from approximate $10K to $102M.1 The stubborn statistic that roughly 39% of all American adults have a four-year college degree — a percentage that has barely moved in the last decade — is a stark reminder of our lack of progress.

Andy and his colleagues at Valdosta State had been pursuing the same goals around the use of analytics. This work is reflected in Andy's dissertation “College Student Success: Using Predictive Modeling and Actionable Intelligence with a Faculty-Centered Information Portal to Improve Student Academic Performance”. I found Andy's work particularly intriguing, primarily because it not only focused on the rigor around data (and the intelligence that can be gleaned from a variety of datasets that otherwise would be relatively meaningless independent of one another), but also around what I call the action side of student success.

In other words, the hard work around taking the insights and actually doing something meaningful with that information to ultimately 'nudge' a student to take a particular set of actions — such as an instant message regarding the criticality of a particular test, a push to an advisor to proactively reach out on a financial aid topic, or simply 'drips' of encouragement, delivered electronically, during a particularly challenging course — and then consistently and constantly engage the student through a variety of channels to develop a pattern of success over time.

Another important aspect of the Valdosta State work was the principle of incrementalism: allowing small wins and success to prove the value of the solution, then reinvesting that 'success' into scaling the solution across the enterprise. Technology in the Valdosta State case was not the silver bullet; it was simply the fuel for a series of changes instituted at an 'enterprise' level that changed the way in which the university engaged with students to improve outcomes. This required strong and consistent leadership.

Many hundreds of U.S. colleges and universities have invested in at least one (and in many cases, more than one) student success tool as a means to address retention and completion metrics. Yet years later, many are asking why the results in improved outcomes and student engagement measures haven't followed. We believe the primary reason for the lack of real progress is a misplaced focus on the tool, and not nearly enough emphasis on instituting fundamental reform around the action side of the equation. These reforms are generally a great deal harder to accomplish, as they often require changes to student services and advising that are rooted in decades-long cultural norms — changes that in many cases are beyond the existing capacity of many colleges and universities. Given the shared governance model prevalent in higher education, this equates to a leadership challenge that many schools are ill-equipped to tackle.

Five Key Steps to Improved Student Outcomes

The good news in all of this is that we believe there are strategies that can be employed to drive meaningful change. Andy and I have compiled five key principles that, if we were to advise a president or a provost on a path forward toward meaningful improvement in outcomes, we would institute:

  1. Student success must become central to the mission of the institution.
    Most student success or retention initiatives get their start in a specific school, or within a unit of administration like IT, IR, or advising. Yet this rarely gets the needed buy-in at an 'enterprise' level (with faculty across departments or colleges). Student success must be a core element of institutional strategy at the president and provost level. It should be communicated internally and externally as a fundamental element of the institution's strategic mission. This should include prioritization from a long-term sustained funding perspective. An element of a sustainable plan would be to produce models that would show returns on the investment made at an institutional level. As the process scales, the revenue increases from retention increases allow for even greater investment (and for states with performance-based funding systems, this becomes a compounding effect).

  2. The action side of the equation is as important as the analytical insight itself.
    Many institutions fall into the trap of believing the tool is the solution. In reality, a plan on how the insights derived from the technology will be delivered (through what channels, at the appropriate moment) is critically important. Staff members who are expected to enable this action element must be a part of the overall architecture of the student success initiative. They must also be included in the selection process of the tools. If they are not, they will become disenfranchised and skeptical. While discrete departments across the institution can influence student success, designing and implementing a comprehensive strategy means moving beyond many of the ideas that stakeholders have about what drives that strategy. Institutional leadership must continually communicate a vision of student success — this will in turn effectively align resources to support defined goals.

  3. Understand the value and limits of technology to address student success.
    Tools do not come with strategy and tactical plans built in; they merely provide insights. From the outset, there must be a clear understanding of what the technology will do and what will be expected of institutional staff. Keys to a successful initiative include:

    • A sober evaluation of existing staff members' strengths and needs for skill development;
    • a comprehensive review of current processes that touch students (what are the current business processes, and how does the technology enhance these interactions);
    • and a future state design that marries technology with new ways to drive engagement with students at the right moments.

    Most institutions already have programs and initiatives in place to support student success. The issue is the student's ability to actually find those programs, and then accurately measuring and evaluating the programs' impact. This will be critical as you begin to build a more strategic approach to student retention and progression. Take a phased approach; don't try to boil the ocean. Start by student type, by college, by program of study. This can provide a more focused way for you to put interventions and strategies into action. If you can show early success and significant improvements among target groups and then communicate this success to other parts of the campus, you can more effectively grow that student success initiative in scalable ways. Actionable insights aligned with tactical plans (i.e. playbooks) lead to significant change.

  4. A 'people' investment is as (or more) important than a technology investment.
    The history of academic advising in higher education is, like many other functions, typically siloed to departments with little consistency across the units or various departments. A leading practice in this area is to make advising into a more centralized function, with some level of standards in place around how insights are leveraged. While advising resources don't necessarily have to be moved out of the schools and colleges, some degree of centralization of advising at the institutional level is required. This likely means an increase in advising resources, as well as making them more accessible and available. It should also entail the deployment of a uniform set of tools and dashboards across the entire student success team. Institutions should plan on investing in training and staff development as it pertains to student success.

  5. Improving student success does not equal reduction in quality.
    You may hear your faculty push back on student success initiatives by stating that this will result in a reduction in quality and an overall drop in the institution's ranking and performance. Don't be drawn into this argument. Instead, make the case that quality and student success are not mutually exclusive, but rather mutually reinforcing, provided there are high standards in place from both an admissions and an academic rigor perspective.

Andy and I continue to collaborate on student success initiatives and believe all five of the above principles are important. Mastering only one or two of them in isolation will not lead to meaningful improvement. This doesn't mean boiling the oceans initially; start small, but design for the academic enterprise. You may be surprised by how many reluctant units or departments will jump on board once you demonstrate the fruits of success.

While technology sounds complicated, it is actually the less difficult aspect of this extremely complex problem. It is institutional leadership, change management, and action elements of the solution that, unfortunately, are the most difficult elements for institutions to master. In order to make meaningful progress in an area so vital to our long-term advancement as a society, all of these elements should be addressed with equal vigor.


  1. The Cost of College Attrition at Four-Year Colleges & Universities, Neal Raisman 2013

Andy Clark is a Specialist Leader with Deloitte Consulting, LLP, and is the former VP of Enrollment Management, Marketing and Communications at Valdosta State University and Vice Provost at Middle Georgia State University.

Cole Clark is Executive Director, Higher Education with Deloitte Services, LP, and is the former Global VP of Education and Research at Oracle Corporation.