Addressing Student Success: When Can We Declare We Are Done?

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Since the Integrated Planning and Advising for Student Success (iPASS) effort began, we have witnessed committed, long-term approaches to improving student success; here are five key lessons learned from the institutions involved.

Addressing Student Success: When Can We Declare We Are Done?
Credit: hxdbzxy / Shutterstock © 2018

Addressing student success demands a long-term commitment on the part of an institution. It is not a project that can be completed within a year or two or even three. To be effective in helping students finish what they have started, an approach geared toward student success must be ongoing. Since the Integrated Planning and Advising for Student Success (iPASS) effort began with the first round of grants in 2013 and continued until a second round was awarded in 2015, we have witnessed committed, long-term approaches to improving student success moving forward throughout the higher education community, both at grantee institutions and beyond. An ongoing institutional commitment to student success efforts over time was especially evident in the third and final iPASS convening, held February 19–20 in Nashville, Tennessee.

EDUCAUSE was a research partner in the first round of grants and a grantor and implementer partnering with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in the second round. As a result, we can now address the question: What have we learned in these three years of working with 36 institutions that committed to this work and to sharing and learning together as a community? This student success initiative is much more about the "people" side of the work than the technology or the process; we might think of it as 70% people, 15% technology, and 15% process.

From our experience in leading this work, here are five best-practice recommendations to support this crucially important people side of a long-term student success effort:

  • Cross-functional teams are a must. It takes a village; yes, everyone on campus is responsible for student success, and everyone needs to be deliberate in breaking departmental silos so that the institution prioritizes the needs of the student over those of the department. Departments need to see and understand how their work is interdependent. It is critical that they share information and progress with each other as they transform and adjust their processes and practices to cut redundancies and holistically support the student.
  • Leadership is key. Even though many individuals are working and contributing to student success efforts on campus, someone in a leadership position should take charge, should lead the way, and be accountable. We have witnessed the increase in new positions to take on this role, and it works!
  • Set a vision and communicate it often and in multiple ways. The institution should create a plan of action, tie it to the vision, and define success. Anyone who is involved needs to link their activities to the vision. Effective communication is a key factor in the success of these efforts. Not everyone needs the same information or will be able to understand it in the same way. The story should be tailored to the audience and should answer the question that ties it all together — Why?
  • Measure and refine. Setting goals and targets is essential to knowing if you are moving in the right direction. You will need to identify initial deployment and adoption goals and collect data to track whether transformation is starting to happen, both in the adoption of new technology and in the process changes you are promoting. Your longer-term goals, such as retention and completion rates, while important, should not be the only data you track. Communicating your results, whether good or bad, is critical, and remember that continually improving and refining should become a best practice for this work.
  • Celebrate! Because a student success initiative is an ongoing and indeed unending effort, institutions should acknowledge wins early and often. Doing so will help maintain momentum, commitment, and a sense of real urgency. Positive feedback and information on progress being made and milestones achieved are critical for the success of this long-term journey.

In the spirit of an initiative that will necessarily be ongoing, the final iPASS grant convening focused on sustainability — on ensuring that the work will continue once the grant period is over. We asked grantees to focus on how to maintain the successful changes that arose from their efforts in the past two and a half years and to discuss how they would continue working toward the goals they had not yet achieved. We encouraged the institutional teams to discuss these three topics:

  1. Committing to continuous improvement and building on the successes accomplished to date;
  2. Ensuring that efforts continue to eliminate achievement gaps; and
  3. Focusing on agility, which requires being nimble and responsive at the same time. Agility encompasses the ability to change while retaining enough stability to anchor the work in the institution's vision and mission.

Grantees shared their plans for sustainability with each other. In most cases, these were specific to next-phase work that needed to take place. Here are some themes we heard:

  • Be more intentional about communicating across all sectors — include the student voice.
  • Continue to incorporate new elements in how we advise and support students.
  • Resolve capacity issues.
  • Focus on securing buy-in from faculty and on meaningful communication with them.
  • Continue to work on needed cultural change.
  • Create new tier structures for advisors; support advising with skill development.
  • Elevate the advisor role.
  • Continue to use data to inform and support the work.
  • Secure permanent funding for sustained efforts.
  • Continue training and communicate changes coming in the next phase.
  • Focus on the system-wide adoption of tools; include the students as adopters.
  • Work on solving technology interoperability, with a focus on making it seamless and easy to use to support increased adoption.
  • Rekindle the action plan for this work, as developed early in the grant period; refine and communicate this plan to the community.

As we observed at the beginning of this post, a one-time effort with a predefined end point is unlikely to be effective in improving student success. The commitment to this work must be for the long term. As they have clearly shown throughout the grant period and as they demonstrated once again at this final community meeting, the grantees are pioneers in their intentional approach to the long haul — just as they have been leading the way in so many aspects of the national movement toward increased student success over the past several years. The iPASS grants formally conclude this summer, but the work to ensure that students are supported in ways that enable them to finish what they have started will clearly be ongoing for the foreseeable future.

To learn more about the iPASS grantees and their work, visit the EDUCAUSE iPASS grant page.

Ana Borray is Director of Professional Learning at EDUCAUSE.

© 2018 Ana Borray. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.