Culture Change First, Then Student Success

min read

Leading student success is less about adding initiatives and more about changing culture.

Culture Change First, Then Student Success
Credit: littlenySTOCK / Shutterstock © 2018

When Ramapo College of New Jersey was selected as an Integrated Planning and Advising for Student Success (iPASS) recipient in September 2015, we were not aware of the earlier round of iPASS grants or their takeaways. The iPASS Grant Challenge focuses on utilizing technology to increase student success across three key domains: education planning; counseling and coaching; and risk targeting and intervention. When we received the grant, we were in the midst of a multi-year plan, started in 2010, to increase a culture of student success on our campus. Yes, we had begun implementing mandatory advisement in 2010 by piloting and slowly rolling out our initiative in a phased approach, and yes, we were three years into the use of Starfish as our retention CRM system. But I knew we were in the midst of something bigger. We were quickly learning that our retention CRM software enabled us not only to better connect with our students but also, and even more important, to better connect with each other.

At its core, student success is not about the function on a campus. It's about IT professionals and enrollment professionals and student affairs professionals and faculty coming together to achieve a singular purpose: increasing the success of our students. Specifically, the work that emerges when IT and enrollment and student affairs professionals collaborate can drive significant change. IT professionals bring a knowledge of process, an ability to see the connectedness of what we do through a lens that is often foreign to those on the enrollment and student affairs side. IT staff can think through how systems integrate, how communication flows, and how technology can facilitate end goals. Enrollment and student affairs folks, on the other hand, can speak directly to how a new technology or system impacts students, how what we do feels when a technology is implemented, and how technology efficiencies may work in theory but how sometimes unanticipated consequences or outcomes negatively impact the very issue we are trying to address — student persistence.

Collaboration, then, is the result of culture; culture thus needs to drive technological changes.

At the iPASS convening in October 2015, I met other grant recipients and learned more about the early round of iPASS grants and some of the great work that had been accomplished at schools like Northeast Wisconsin Technical College and Middle Tennessee State. Yet even with these accomplishments, the takeaway from this earlier work was that technological solutions focused on student success were not being successfully implemented across the board. In some cases, the campus-wide buy-in needed to use those systems was not reaching intended levels. This theme struck a chord with me, reflecting a story I hear at many conferences: "I have been working hard to implement Technology Solution X, and yet we are not getting the results we need. Retention is not improving."

It has been eight years since we began our shift at Ramapo to create a culture of student success. We certainly do not have all the answers, and we struggle with challenges similar to those at other institutions. Yet I can confidently say that our culture of student success is stronger, more intentional, and more pervasive today. As I reflect on that, I realize that what has made us successful is not the number of initiatives we have launched, the bells and whistles of the newest technology we have implemented, or even the net revenue generated as a result of these initiatives (though my CFO loves that). Rather, it is our culture of student success. Our culture breeds and seeks out new initiatives in the name of student success. Thus, I believe that leading student success is less about pursuing numerous initiatives and more about changing the culture on campus. Leading that change occurs in three phases, as introduced by Kurt Lewin in 1947: unfreezing, moving, and refreezing.1 These are as applicable today as they were seventy years ago — perhaps even more so.

Unfreezing: Creating the Need to Change

A Google search for "leading change" produces over 2 million results in half a second. That gives a quick glimpse into the amount of literature and resources on how to lead change. Across many of the leading authors' theories and how-to guides, there is one constant: a recognized and communal sense that change is needed — or at least that an issue exists. In this regard, leaders play an important role in articulating the changing external environment to internal stakeholders including faculty, staff, and administrators. The reality is that leaders often spend most of their time living in the external environment and understanding what that means for the institution. Yet, a large percentage of others on campus do not. Therefore, it is on leaders to bring the data and the information to them, rather than expecting them to come and get it.

Adopting a strategic enrollment management (SEM) approach can help with this. In its simplest form, SEM is an institutional approach for answering key questions about the optimal recruitment, retention, and graduation rates given the academic context of the institution.2 At Ramapo, using this approach meant that we needed to contextualize who we were as a public college, within the state of New Jersey, and how we compared with other NJ schools as well as aspirant institutions outside the state. Specifically, leaders attempting to increase student success efforts can look at the following:

  • High school demographic data. What does the future look like in terms of enrollment? WICHE is a wonderful resource for this data.
  • State appropriations history and projections forward. Those of us at public colleges know that state appropriations are declining. It is important to work with the CFO to understand what those projections look like and, as a result, what percentage of revenues will come from tuition and fees.
  • Contextualizing of student outcomes against competitor and aspirant institutions. Most internal stakeholders know the student outcomes at their institution. However, what they don't necessarily know is how those outcomes compare with those at similar institutions, competing institutions, and institutions we aspire to be like. One way to contextualize this is to look at the institution's admissions selectivity and find other colleges/universities that have a similar profile.
  • Brand promise. In today's uber-competitive enrollment environment, the entire campus needs to understand what the Admissions and Marketing Offices are using as the foundation for all of their materials, remarks, and graphics. That foundational story cannot exist solely in the Admissions and Marketing Offices but needs to be something that permeates the entire campus and, in particular, the student success initiatives.

Collectively, this data collection should set the stage and convey the reason for change. For student success, perhaps this leads to having a conversation about the need to generate more net revenue through student retention. Perhaps it leads to competing with other institutions to enroll students and making sure that outcomes reflect the type of student who is enrolling. Perhaps it leads to finding data on whether students are struggling to complete on time. Whatever the result, the data needs to be presented consistently, frequently, and transparently. The natural reaction to the concept of change is fear and defense. Articulating the reason for change, and helping others understand why change is necessary, must precede any conversation about new initiatives.

Moving: Starting to Change

Moving toward change requires buy-in from faculty, staff, and administrators. Too often, I hear administrators who are implementing a student success initiative on their campus say: "We administrators in Enrollment Management and Student Affairs [insert any office here] know exactly what needs to be done to improve student success. If the faculty would support our initiatives and change their ways, we could make it happen." In response, faculty say: "Why are we as faculty always being told what to do? We need more data to understand what we are trying to do. Administrators are always telling us the changes we need to make in order to support their initiatives."

Reshaping this approach and perspective from both sides requires collaboration, teamwork, and a structure that enables communication. When the right people are around the table, the right questions get asked, and ultimately the right choices are made. Leaders need to consider extending this idea even to the selection of technology systems. Rather than asking faculty to buy into using a system, administrators should consider engaging faculty in the actual selection of the system. Then the conversation shifts from "Why am I being asked to support a system I know nothing about?" to the more important question: "What are we hoping to accomplish to support student success through the potential adoption of a system?"

Refreezing: Setting New Roots

The most important element in leading culture change is not starting the change or even implementing it; the essential need is anchoring the change into the new culture. This begins with an important adage: "Change needs to be small enough to be manageable but large enough to be meaningful." On many campuses, student success focuses on improving student outcomes such as retention, persistence, and graduation rates. While these are important outcomes and are certainly easily measured, they are rarely metrics that can be moved significantly on a year-to-year basis. Therefore, leaders must set short-term targets for student success initiatives — targets that are not as lofty as increasing retention by 20 percent. That very well may be the long-term target for an initiative, but other targets can be celebrated. For instance, when we launched Starfish on our campus, we of course wanted to improve student retention. But we also set simple metrics: for example, how many progress surveys faculty received to fill out about one student. In our decentralized model, faculty could have received up to three different progress surveys, in three different formats, to complete for one student. The number of progress surveys is not a retention metric, but tracking that number and sharing the results with the faculty was essential. That helps to generate buy-in and keep the momentum rolling. Lastly, leaders must take the time to celebrate small victories and short-term wins. Leaders are constantly pulled in lots of directions and are regularly responding to the next email or crisis that comes across their desk. Building in time to recognize when metrics are reached, dedicating time to communicate those achievements, and creating time to celebrate those short-term wins are essential to long-term culture change. When people are engaged and inspired, change lasts.

Ways for IT Professionals to Connect with Enrollment and Student Affairs Professionals

With the growth in educational technologies, the opportunities to invest in these technologies in order to foster and increase student success will only increase. IT professionals need to continue to explain where there are opportunities to connect systems. Their ability to see how one step relates to another is essential in the student success process and in initiatives focused on change. Enrollment and student affairs work cannot exist in a bubble; it needs to tie to the SIS, and we need to be able to report out on it. Second, IT professionals also have enterprise-wide knowledge that enrollment and student affairs professionals often do not know about — for example, what the institutional advancement or academic affairs organization is pursuing or implementing.

As we look toward the future, another area where IT professionals can further support student success initiatives is by spending some time shadowing the student experience. An IT team member can be assigned as a student success liaison. Oftentimes, this liaison will serve as the "tech person" for support. But in addition, the liaison can join staff meetings and participate in direct student-focused experiences. After technology is implemented, the liaison can sit as an advisor and coach to see how the system works in application. Looking at the technology through the lens of the frontline users or, more importantly, the student-users can lend great support to the student success work.


Student success is far more than a singular initiative or the job responsibility of one individual. It is a culture, an ethos that permeates a campus in the name of improving the student experience. Leaders must recognize this and step back from the focus on investing in implementing technologies and other solutions in the name of student success. It seems like almost every day another vendor has created the next software solution that will increase student success and revolutionize our campuses. Yet it is essential for leaders to invest first in building and maintaining a culture of student success.

Increased student success will not be the result of one initiative or the work of one unit; it will be the result of collective campus efforts to collaborate to break down silos and focus holistically on students. That collaboration underscores student success because students do not see institutions as the units through which we organize ourselves. They see only one campus. In turn, leaders must connect the dots and approach student success through a singular, unified lens. The return on the investment of a leader who articulates the reason why, engages the key stakeholders early and often, and celebrates short-term victories will outperform that of any singular initiative or the most comprehensive technology solution. Leaders must be change managers first and student success implementers second.


  1. Kurt Lewin, "Frontiers in Group Dynamics: Concept, Method and Reality in Social Science; Social Equilibria and Social Change," Human Relations 1, no. 1 (1947).
  2. Michael G. Dolence, Strategic Enrollment Management: A Primer for Campus Administrators (Washington, D.C.: American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, 1993).

Christopher D. Romano is Vice President of Enrollment Management and Student Affairs at Ramapo College of New Jersey.

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