Numbers that Count: Measuring the ROI of Student Success Initiatives

min read

A new toolkit helps colleges and universities evaluate the return on investment of initiatives to increase student success.

Professor working with three students
Credit: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock © 2018

Bolstering student success in higher education is both a lofty goal and a multifaceted issue. If student success initiatives all look equally enticing, how exactly can institutions make the right selection?

College and university leadership teams worldwide are exploring new ways to decrease costs while delivering high-quality education to an expanding and ever more diverse student body. They recognize that achieving these goals will potentially require a range of investments in student success, including the following:

  • Enhancing and streamlining course advising, course selection, and/or course registration
  • Tracking student progress
  • Targeting support services to improve student academic decision-making
  • Providing support for institutional strategies aimed at helping students stay on track toward degree attainment

How can institutions figure out the cost of each of those investments and how to define success? What expectations should be set and communicated, and how might exit strategies be developed? Finally, how might we define and capture the return on investment (ROI)—both to students and to the institution—from the initiative?

In response to these questions, EDUCAUSE has developed a new Student Success Initiative (SSI) Toolkit, which is built around a user-friendly Excel-based model (see the links in the Analyze section of the toolkit). This model helps institutions capture projected revenues to support the SSI, as well as expenses for personnel and other parts of the initiative. Coupled with new metrics and data visualizations, the model enables administrators and faculty to more deeply understand and communicate the ROI impact of the SSI.

In addition to the model, the toolkit contains a field guide for how the model can be employed, various pitfalls to be avoided, and best practices for applying an ROI lens more broadly.

The toolkit's creation builds on the long partnership between EDUCAUSE and rpk GROUP on Integrated Planning and Advising for Student Success (iPASS) projects and other SSIs. Its lessons include the following:

  • Talking about ROI: To create engagement around ROI, it's important to consider ROI for both students and the institution. Student ROI could include metrics such as progression, fewer excess credits, reduced time to degree, or more completions. Institutional ROI might reflect cost savings, efficiencies, and increased revenue. The good news is that most SSIs can provide evidence of both types of ROI. For example, an increase in student retention can ultimately produce more net tuition revenue for an institution.
  • Making connections across the institution: ROI analysis creates an excellent intersection point between the work of the chief academic officer and the chief financial officer. For faculty, the commitment to student success can now be directly connected to the creation of more-sustainable financial models.
  • Developing communication strategies: The toolkit facilitates a shift in the conversation from spending ("What does the SSI cost?") to ROI ("What good things might happen as a result of our initiative?"). Institutions are encouraged to set some measurable targets. Ultimately, the goal is to create a story from the numbers, and the right metrics help accomplish this. Therefore, the toolkit focuses on defining what success will look like and how that success can be measured.
  • Driving toward sustainability: While many institutions profess interest in innovation, few have taken the holistic view required to sustain it. The launch of an SSI in and of itself is an achievement but is not how we define success. Instead, we seek to answer the following:
    • How is the project being supported—both to launch it and maintain it over time? Can we project changes in student success that will impact funding?
    • How are unit costs changing—for example, the cost that leads to degree completion? Are students increasing their average credit hour load while reducing excess credits and their time to degree?

The EDUCAUSE SSI Toolkit provides actionable best practices around SSIs and ROI in one complete package. It reflects EDUCAUSE's ongoing commitment to empower institutional stakeholders to move from analysis to action.

Donna Desrochers is an associate at rpk GROUP.

Rick Staisloff is principal at rpk GROUP.

© 2018 Donna Desrochers and Rick Staisloff. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-ND 4.0 International License.