Higher ed’s student success HQs

How and why institutions are designing, marketing and funding student success centers on campus
By: | Issue: July, 2015
June 14, 2015

As the definition of student success continues to expand beyond retention and graduation rates, its physical presence on many campuses is also beginning to sprawl.

Student success centers have been emerging for years, and the trend is expected to continue. For each school considering one, decisions involve how to structure and design the space, as well as how to integrate it into a larger student success strategy.

Models and forms

Student success centers come in a wide variety of forms and sizes.

Some schools have devoted entire buildings to these efforts. A prime example is Metropolitan State University of Denver’s 145,000-square-foot Student Success Building, a $62 million structure funded entirely through student-approved fees and open since 2012. It brings advising, registration, tutoring, financial aid and the bursar’s office together under one roof.

The building also houses a number of programs geared toward reaching students with specific academic needs (extra help in math, for example) as well as more holistic aspects of student life (such as helping first-generation or low-income students transition to the culture of college life).

Buildings like this are symbolic, says Mari Normyle, a retention consultant with Ruffalo Noel Levitz who helped launch a student success center in her previous role as associate dean for student engagement at Lynchburg College in Virginia. They send a message to prospective students—and their parents—that a college or university is committed to giving students the help they’ll need.

That message is crucial in today’s consumer approach to a college education, says Eric Moschella, who directs the Student Success Center at the University of South Carolina. “Students and parents are looking for more. They want institutional investment in their students.”

20 success center service options

  • Academic advising
  • Tutoring
  • Supplemental course instruction
  • Registration
  • Financial aid
  • Financial literacy programs
  • Scholarship resources
  • Study abroad resources
  • Bursar
  • English language learning
  • First-generation student support
  • Low-income student support
  • First-year student success course support
  • Veteran student support
  • Transfer student support
  • Career planning
  • Job interview practice
  • Job skills training
  • Time management coaching
  • Immigrant services and support

That investment, though, doesn’t have to come in the form of an entire building. Some student success centers reside within a particular college.

Washington State University’s 4,600-square-foot Carson Center for Student Success, for example, is located within the business school. The center was funded almost entirely by an alumnus, former Boeing CEO Scott Carson.

According to the center’s associate director, Michelle Snyder, Carson grew tired of hearing from colleagues that WSU students weren’t as prepared for the workforce as they should be. The center opened in 2005 with a focus on career planning and professional development, but expanded and evolved in 2012 with a greater emphasis on broader aspects of student success. It now also offers academic advising, tutoring, workshops, events and study space, along with scholarship and study abroad resources.

The University of South Carolina’s Student Success Center accounts for 9,000 square feet in the library, the result of a $1.5 million renovation completed in 2006. According to Gene Luna, associate VP for student affairs, the facility evolved from a more fragmented model—with smaller academic success centers located in each of the residence halls.

While three of these satellite locations still exist, they now mirror the larger center in the library, which offers cross-college advising, supplemental instruction and tutoring, as well as coaching in a wide variety of areas, such as time management and financial literacy.

Locating student success centers in the library is a growing trend, says Ana Borray, an executive advisor with Hobsons. In some cases, she adds, these centers are actually taking over libraries.

Such is the case at Fox Valley Technical College in Wisconsin, where the library is now considered a part of the two-story, 24,500-square-foot Student Success Center. The $6 million expansion project, completed in fall 2014, includes computer labs, space for one-on-one and group tutoring, and a four-room collaboration area with wall-to-wall whiteboards.

Well before deciding how much space to devote, though, institutions need to have a deeper student success strategy in place, says Borray. “It’s about developing a philosophy for addressing change, for breaking silos. A building alone is not going to solve the issue.”

Laying the groundwork

Whether or not to launch a student success center often comes down to campus politics, says Borray. Anyone looking to establish a student success center needs to gain support across campus and make a strong case for funding.

It’s important to make the argument with data, says Luna of the University of South Carolina. The business case can be made by demonstrating how student success centers improve retention—for example, he says, a first-year student who steps into one of USC’s success centers will retain at a rate of at least 5 to 6 percent higher than a student who doesn’t.

But the academic case is crucial, too, especially when trying to gain faculty support. At USC, the first step was convincing select faculty to adopt supplemental instruction through the center.

“They became our faculty champions,” says Luna. “After a couple of years showing the success of our students in difficult gateway courses, it became much easier to convince chairs and faculty to draw on our support,” he explains.

The center now works with 100 instructors to offer supplemental instruction—formal study sessions led by trained undergraduates who are paired with challenging gateway courses such as Biology 101 and Chemistry 102.

Data can also be used to determine a structure for the center, says Normyle of Ruffalo Noel Levitz. Surveying students can reveal how much to focus on each of the three main areas that student success centers tend to cover: skills development and academic support; career planning and advising; and transition programs such as first-year, first-generation or transfer student support.

These decisions come down to knowing your campus well, says Moschella. “Centers should reflect student and institutional needs—no more, no less.”

Design and function

In terms of interior design, the goal is to create a welcoming space where students will want to spend their time. At Fox Valley Technical, the Student Success Center was designed to feature an open layout, natural lighting, multimedia technology and comfortable furniture that would lure students to the space, and encourage them to work together, says spokesman Chris Jossart.

Also important is flexibility, with space that could be used for multiple functions. WSU’s Carson Center now includes lounge and study areas, as well as an executive board room, practice interview rooms and advising offices that were added as the needs and uses of the center expanded.

Regarding the design, it’s important to consult with as many people and departments as possible, says Kelley O’Neal, director of the Student Success Center at Brazosport College in Texas. “Speak to your custodial staff, your security staff. All those people may have insight into what design works best for students.”

As for location, central is best, says Normyle. “Students expect convenience.”

Marketing and outreach

One of the most important—and perhaps challenging—aspects of establishing an effective student success center is getting students through the door. For this reason, it’s important to market the center well—actively avoiding or removing the stigma that can sometimes surround academic support. Regular communications to students that “it’s cool to get help” are key, says Normyle.

At USC, this message is bolstered by numbers. Seven out of 10 first-year students in the 2013-14 cohort utilized the center, and the average GPA of students using the center is more than 3.0. These stats help convey a sense that it’s something everyone should be doing—a way to gain competitive advantage, rather than remediation, say Luna and Moschella.

Bringing developmental and more advanced tutoring together in one building also helps, says O’Neill of Brazosport. Yet it can be beneficial to have separate space within the center for different levels of learning. “If I’m in developmental math, I don’t want to be in the same room as someone taking trig,” he says. “That’s why we have three rooms for math tutoring. We want students to be as comfortable as possible.”

The best way to reach students just may be to involve them in running it. “Incorporating student voices into every aspect of the center is really going to make it a place they actually want to be,” says Snyder of Washington State.

The Carson Center employs seven business students who have to apply and interview for the positions and do everything from working reception to serving as peer mentors, while three student interns help with promotions and advertising. “We meet weekly with them and get feedback. We rely on them to keep it relevant,” she says.

Housing required services within the center can also increase traffic. At WSU, academic advising offices are located in the space, while at Brazosport, the center hosts the offices for instructors of the required first-year student success course.

USC faculty plays a large part in center outreach. Its Success Connect program asks faculty and staff to identify and refer undergraduates who are missing class or struggling academically. The center has received more than 1,100 referrals since the program fully launched in 2014, according to Moschella. He says it’s important to approach campus partnerships—with students and faculty—from a service perspective that favors “How can I help you?” over “You have a problem I will fix.”

Ultimately, student success is about helping students learn to seek support, reflect, and discover and use their strengths, says Moschella. “This is the foundation of all we do, and hopefully will be a trend in the culture of higher education.”

Ioanna Opidee is a Miford, Conn.-based writer and an adjunct professor.