Making the Case for Student Success Technology

min read

Supported by EDUCAUSE since 2015, pioneering colleges and universities that are using student success technologies to improve their students' rates of retention and completion are producing concrete positive results.

Making the Case for Student Success Technology
Credit: Mingirov Yuriy / Shutterstock © 2018

While many of us were personally inspired by our higher education experience, many of us also take for granted that colleges and universities are the "ticket out of poverty" or the beginning of a wonderful journey of enlightenment, curiosity, and insight. National statistics relentlessly remind us that a discouraging number of our students experience something altogether less inspirational when they begin the journey but do not complete it with a degree or certificate. Some even end up in a worse position than when they began if they take on unmanageable student loan debt but still lack a degree. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, as of 2015 nearly half of all students who started college were not graduating within six years,1 and institutional presidents and other leaders widely understand that this is a top priority. Still, the numbers remain discouraging. Simply put, college and university leaders must do everything in their power to ensure that students finish what they start. Small wonder, then, that student success has been near the top of the EDUCAUSE annual Top 10 IT Issues lists since 2013.2

Technologies developed in the last decade and powered by new analytics capabilities and increasingly large amounts of data immediately available on students' progress have given institutions new options to intervene and help students before it's too late. Pioneering colleges and universities have begun actively using these capabilities to improve their students' rates of retention and completion.

For a number of years, EDUCAUSE has been committed to supporting the deployment of these technologies, which offer promising traction in an area known for its intractability. Student success is a needle notoriously difficult to move. With funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, EDUCAUSE awarded grants in late 2015 to almost two dozen institutions to make significant changes in the way that students are advised. Among other things, these institutions rolled out newer approaches to degree planning, provided advisors with up-to-the-minute information about a student from disparate institutional systems, and made it possible to determine very early in a term or semester whether a student is struggling, so that appropriate remedies can be employed. Far from a one-size-fits-all approach, we encouraged each college or university to develop initiatives and programs that build on its strengths and unique characteristics. In collaboration with Achieving the Dream, an association that serves community colleges, we provided ongoing support for these institutions as they implemented the tools and as they initiated the changes in work practices, relationships, and business processes to make the tools truly helpful.

The result was iPASS (Integrated Planning and Advising for Student Success). We have also called this work "technology-enabled advising," reminding us that the heart of the work lies in transforming the ways in which our institutions support and advise our students, rather than in simply getting new software up and running. The institutions, all of which already had at least one new technology installed at the beginning of the grant period, engaged first in a year of planning and preparing to broaden and extend their efforts. EDUCAUSE provided each college or university with the change leadership training essential to success. During the next two academic years, the iPASS institutions continued with rollouts and refinements, in most cases extending their efforts so that they encompassed degree planning, counseling and coaching, and early alert.

Between 2015 and today, we have carefully watched their progress and their results to get a clear sense of the case for student success technologies. The news is good. In their reports to us, the 26 iPASS grantee institutions have included a wide range of successful outcomes, from the breaking down of institutional silos in support of the work to the creation of new professional development programs for advisors.

Concrete Positive Results

Perhaps most impressive are the concrete results on retention and completion:

  • Colorado State University noted a 3.6% increase in overall retention since 2006, at the same time that its population of students of color increased dramatically (by 99%).
  • The Community College of Philadelphia cited a 6% improvement in the one-year retention rate after students were assigned individual academic advisors.
  • Georgia State University noted a 5% retention rate increase (from 65% to 70%) among the students at Perimeter College, a two-year college that is being integrated into GSU.
  • Middle Tennessee State University saw a 1.5% retention rate increase over two years across the entire undergraduate population.
  • Northeast Wisconsin Technical College saw a 10.5% retention rate increase among those who took part in integrated advising above those who did not participate.
  • Ramapo College of New Jersey, which focused on its population of transfer students, found a 1.4% improvement in retention over two years among that population.

In our work with these institutions to further these positive results, we have developed a number of resources to help with the institutions' major efforts to increase student success. All of the resources are available on the EDUCAUSE iPASS Grant Challenge page. I'm very pleased to be able to share with you the two newest resources that have emerged from the grantees' work and our support of that work. Both of these resources reflect input from the institutions that have done so much excellent work to advance their students' success and, more broadly, the nature and practice of advising for today's students.

iPASS: Lessons from the Field

The new report iPass: Lessons from the Field, based on extensive interviews with representatives from twelve of the iPASS institutions, shares insights on how they implemented new advising technologies, rethought business processes, and broke down barriers within the college or university. The advice they offer is focused in three areas: transforming advising; gaining engagement from the faculty; and implementing and developing effective predictive analytics.

Return on Investment Toolkit

Without question, working to advance student retention and completion is the right thing to do for our students and is completely aligned to our missions as learning institutions. During times of financial stress, it's important to remember also that improving student success positively affects the financial sustainability of colleges and universities: avoiding revenue loss from students who leave prematurely supports our mission the same as does gaining revenue from new students.

The iPASS grantee institutions were all asked to consider the return on investment on funds that were invested in this work. Again, we have good news. According to a study conducted by rpk GROUP, initiatives like these may generate revenue averaging $1 million, even after considering expenses for the technology and for additional personnel costs.3 Following this study, we engaged rpk GROUP to develop an online calculator, the Return on Investment Toolkit, to enable institutions to predict their likely ROI as they consider programs like these. Accompanying the toolkit on the EDUCAUSE website are a detailed rationale for its use, an infographic, a how-to-use video, and two case studies—all of which will be useful to institutions considering investment in student success transformation.

Final Thoughts

It's hard to imagine more important or more fulfilling work than helping our students finish what they start and fully realize their dreams for themselves, their families, and their communities. These tested technologies and the programs and transformations should be carefully considered at any institution seeking to make a difference for students when it comes to student success.

In continued service to higher education's academic community, EDUCAUSE is exploring ways to expand its scope and nature of work related to student success. Student success initiatives are increasingly reliant on collaboration among diverse, cross-institutional teams to select, deploy, and maintain technology-enabled student support and student success systems. Technology professionals are strategically positioned to facilitate academic transformation, and our members are seeking resources and leadership opportunities to transform the academy. iPASS has been a key focus of our student success efforts. Now is an opportune time to grow the community of student success professionals who are increasingly reliant on technology-based solutions for supporting, promoting, and optimizing student success initiatives. We encourage you to join our Leading Academic Transformation initiative and to share your student success stories at the 2019 EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative Annual Meeting as we develop a program to help our members gain influence and maintain relevance to improve student success and lead academic transformation.

John O'Brien's signature



  1. The overall national six-year completion rate for the fall 2009 cohort was 52.9%. See D. Shapiro, A. Dundar, P. K. Wakhungu, X. Yuan, A. Nathan, and Y. Hwang, Completing College: A National View of Student Attainment Rates—Fall 2009 Cohort, Signature Report No. 10 (Herndon, VA: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, November 2015).
  2. Student success has been in the top three in five of those six years. See EDUCAUSE, "Top 10 IT Issues: 2000–2018," interactive graphic.
  3. Donna M. Desrochers and Richard L. Staisloff, "Technology-enabled Advising and the Creation of Sustainable Innovation: Early Learnings from iPASS," rpk GROUP, n.d. [accessed September 19, 2018].

John O'Brien is President and CEO of EDUCAUSE.

© 2018 John O'Brien. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.