From class attendance rates and campus activity check-ins to post-graduation job placements and beyond, colleges have no shortage of student success-related data.
While various campus departments have traditionally kept track of these individual data points, more higher ed leaders are making efforts to have various departments work together to share information to support student success.
“Success is the result of multiple variables, and so colleges need to streamline, combine and synthesize support systems in ways that best address their unique student population and campus culture,” says Julia Overton-Healy, director of career services at St. John Fisher College in upstate New York. “Higher education needs to be nimble and adapt to the changing demands and needs of students.”
“Everyone is responsible for student success, and in progressive institutions, the culture is shifting and people across departments are taking responsibility for it,” says Gareth Fowles, vice president for enrollment management at Lynn University in Florida. Providing a robust academic and social experience that meets students’ needs helps ensure they graduate and go on to successful careers—which supports the institution’s long-term sustainability.
Working together to share and use data involves making student success part of everyone’s job, ensuring tech tools are integrated, and tweaking roles and efforts as needed.
Spreading out responsibility
Institutions that are truly moving the needle have added clear student success-related responsibilities to job descriptions. In many cases, that means leaders assembling cross-campus committees and task forces, or even rethinking departmental descriptions.
At Central Arizona College, implementing Guided Pathways—the American Association of Community Colleges’ project focused on helping institutions design and implement structured academic and career pathways at scale—required broadening responsibility for student success.
The college’s administrators have systematically studied and redesigned processes to better focus on student success, says Jenni Cardenas, vice president of student services.
Concerning completion stats
One-third of students who started college in 2011 still didn’t have a degree six years later, according to a report released in 2018 from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. In fact, nearly 2 million students who start college each year will drop out before earning degrees. Completion rates are especially low among first-generation, lower-income and minority students.
For instance, the financial aid and student success offices had separate policies for assessing academic progress. While this worked well for the departmental staff, having to follow two policies confused and was burdensome to students. The offices collaborated to create a single student-friendly process.
“Rarely do I step into a meeting that just includes staff from student services,” Cardenas says. “For some people, it’s hard to recognize the way they do their jobs compared with a year ago.” So staff get reminders about how the changes are helping students and making an impact.
Last year, Lynn University leaders brought together a cross-departmental group of 40 people to identify opportunities, propose solutions and test ideas to improve the student experience. Their work included meeting with students and other departments across campus to develop a detailed repository of what students need and want to know, says Taryn Hamill, associate director of enrollment management.
Through the process, administrators were able to successfully intervene with 76% of students identified by faculty as vulnerable last spring.
At Fisher, spreading responsibility for student success involved forming a task force in 2017 to analyze data and research best practices related to student success. The result is the Fisher Edge approach, which offers a collaborative network of support for every student, says Eileen Lynd-Balta, associate provost.
This effort merged two existing ¨offices in separate buildings—Academic Advising and Career Services—to form the Center for Career and Academic Planning, which is now located on the bustling main level of the college’s ¨library.
“Students can drop in or schedule appointments with advisors who have been cross-trained and can now effectively thread the discussion of majors with potential career options or experiential learning opportunities with career readiness,” Lynd-Balta says, adding that such conversations begin with freshmen. Students now better understand and appreciate how what they study informs their career choices and how their career goals shape what they choose to learn.
Integrating enterprise systems
At Central Arizona, breaking down the silos of individual departments required linking access to all the critical information a student may need, such as admission requirements, advising and financial aid, as well as connecting HR, payroll and finance systems to ensure a comprehensive, real-time and accurate view of both student and operational needs.
Who’s involved in student success?
Dominican University in Illinois recently combined a number of disparate departments into a central Division of Student Success and Engagement to better serve its diverse student population.
Breakdown of fall 2018 freshman class:
– 65%+ Hispanic
– 56% Pell Grant-eligible
– 55% first-generation college
New division includes:
– Residence life
– Multicultural student support
– Data analytics
– Career services
– Academic support services
By implementing new companion SIS, ERP and CRM technology solutions, the college’s leadership team has a clear view into every department’s interactions with students that support enrollment, retention and class placement. The insights help inform curriculum improvements and have allowed the six-campus institution to evolve into a unified, single district offering a student-ready experience, Cardenas says.
Fisher also invested in software platforms to improve communication and strengthen the network of support, Lynd-Balta says. Every student in the college’s ERP has a “success network” identified in a companion program, FisherLink, that includes current instructors, faculty advisors and coaches.
“Students can easily request help, schedule appointments and receive kudos in this single system,” Lynd-Balta says. “Equally important, faculty and staff can share pertinent information to assist students and more efficiently resolve issues.”
Another add-on tool, Handshake, communicates career-related opportunities to students, such as job fairs, ¨academic major expos and employer visit days. In the first year of use, over half of all Fisher students activated their accounts to access job and internship postings and career exploration and readiness tools, Lynd-Balta says.
In-house tech tool development is another option. Lynn University leaders are implementing the ideas from its interdisciplinary “Group of 40,” such as developing a mobile app for students that will provide comprehensive resources and action items to help keep them on track for graduation, Hamill says. Besides helping students choose a major and providing information about deadlines and support services, the app will allow administrators to access a robust view of any student’s progress.
As student success programs evolve, Lynn University and other schools rely on institutional data to inform their progress and make additional changes. “Our goal is to use systems to be more proactive and less reactive,” says Fowles. For example, if a particular class is creating challenges for students, the university can provide more tutoring.
Evolving culture and process
Boosting student success through cross-campus collaboration will likely require tweaks along the way. “Flexibility, adaptability and patience need to be guiding values, at least in the early stages,” says Fisher’s Overton-Healy. “What looks good on paper or in theory can be a train wreck in daily functions.”
As staff take on new responsibilities to improve student success, leaders must acknowledge that change is difficult. “Assure people that changes are not because we are not doing our jobs well, but rather the culture is changing with the newest generation of students and we are adapting to that,” advises Michelle Erklenz-Watts, director of academic support at St. John Fisher. “It is not a reflection of poor past work.”
When committee or group discussions start veering off course, Erklenz-Watts recommends refocusing on the end result by asking the group: “How does this help us become more student-centered?”
Obtaining input from every constituent impacted by new process decisions is key, says Cardenas, of Central Arizona. While involving more people may not be the fastest way to work, it will help prevent future student success roadblocks.©“Remind faculty and staff that for every semester you haven’t collaborated and improved processes, there’s a cohort of students who may be lost,” Cardenas adds. “Once you have that framework of aligned goals, it’s much easier to make decisions moving forward.”
Nancy Mann Jackson is an Alabama-based writer and a frequent contributor to UB.