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What keeps us from maximizing student success

Dave Jarrat
Vice President, Marketing

We all want college students to be successful and graduate prepared for career success. Universities, foundations, government agencies, service providers – we are all working diligently to improve outcomes. So, why have graduation rates in the United States remained relatively unchanged for the last several decades?

There is no simple answer. Growing demand, shifting demographics and changes in education funding mechanisms all play a role. That said, there are obstacles we place in our own way, attitudes and practices that undermine our efforts.

Below are several common self-imposed hurdles to providing effective student support.

Obstacle #1: A reactive mindset

Too often, student services efforts are focused on reacting to problems versus assisting students in developing the habits required for success. Why wait until a student has failed a test or missed several classes before addressing issues of time management and study skills? Proactively support students in developing a plan for achieving their goals. Guide them in assessing likely obstacles. Most importantly, encourage them to take ownership and hold themselves accountable for their own success.

Obstacle #2: Failure to assess “impactability”

Most universities do a reasonable job of identifying students at risk of failure. However, few bother to assess which intervention is most likely to improve a given student’s situation. Without assessing impact, universities cannot provide the right support to the right students at the right time. The result is misallocated assets and student failures that could otherwise be avoided.

Obstacle #3: Relying exclusively on technology

Technology is a valuable tool. But, hardware and software alone cannot improve retention. Early alert systems, student engagement platforms and other retention management solutions are only as effective as the operational processes and professional development that surround them.

Obstacle #4: Favoring equality and/or expediency over efficacy

There is a natural tendency to make new support services available to all students prior to assessing their impact and cost-effectiveness. For some, it’s a matter of fairness – why deny some students the potential benefit? For others, it’s a matter of complexity – conducting a controlled study is often difficult. Failing to assess the efficacy of initiatives before rolling them out at scale often results in a waste of scarce resources.

Obstacle #5: Staffing student success as a side gig

Despite the recognized impact of strong advising, mentoring and coaching on student success, these duties typically fall on the shoulders of faculty, students or others whose primary duties lie elsewhere. Universities that invest in professional advisors and coaches not only see dramatic improvements in student outcomes, they often find that these services pay for themselves by reducing the costs associated with attrition.

Obstacle #6: Analyzing revenue and expenses in isolation

At many institutions, decisions about revenue generation and cost containment are made independently of one another. Often, investments in student services are viewed simply as an expense, irrespective of the additional tuition revenue they may bring or recruiting and attrition costs they may offset. This typically results in the under-allocation of resources to programs that could generate the greatest returns.

Obstacle #7: Delaying important conversations

A prospective student with a vision of where they want to be after college and a plan for how to get there is much more likely to enroll, persist and succeed. The enrollment process is a perfect time to engage students with support resources and career planning. Students’ goals and plans will change over time, but early engagement will keep them from waiting until they fail to reach out for help or finding themselves ready to graduate without having thought about getting a job.