3 leadership learnings on improving student outcomes

How 3 institutions got from goals to results

Higher education leaders who have significantly improved student outcomes have something in common: an integrated plan and a phased approach to rollout. By valuing both, they’ve found that what begins with senior-level decision-makers ends with everyone on staff informed and ready to put changes into practice.

But given the typical challenges of budget pressures, daunting workloads and diverse stakeholder viewpoints, how do leaders get from their goal to effective execution?

Below, we share three change leadership takeaways crucial to enhancing a culture of student success, along with examples that show these takeaways in action.

1. Leverage student insights to launch new initiatives

Effective change leadership takes a student-centric view that crosses organizational boundaries. A multi-stage rollout makes the most of this integrated mindset, giving you the flexibility to accommodate new information from students themselves as you move forward.

Change in Action

Goal: Boost first-year retention by preventing academic distress — and directing students to proven early interventions.

At one private four-year university, surprising findings from student coaching drove a key website change. Here’s the cadence that brought success:

  • After a thorough needs assessment, the university rolled out student coaching.
  • The coaching team discovered that students had a difficult time understanding academic policies.
  • Leaders used strategic recommendations from the coaching team to gain agreement and action around website shifts.

The changes to the website were just one aspect of the university’s long-term strategy to provide students the support needed to persist.

Data spotlight: 

Read more about this large-scale organizational change effort.  

2. Hunt for hidden barriers to retention and completion

Some student support challenges mystify even the most experienced leaders. A stepped approach to improving outcomes provides you with fresh data you can use to consider novel, resource-friendly approaches. Up your integration with tactics that require people to unify in pursuit of a common goal: student success.

Change in Action

Goal: Better serve a student population who ticked all the boxes for future success, yet struggled to thrive.

One highly competitive graduate program was determined to shift their low completion rate upward. Here’s how they drove positive change:

  • Leaders chose a partner to implement a tailored coaching model.
  • The coaching team gathered student insights, which revealed that the program’s adult learners were used to academic and professional success and eschewed traditional support services.
  • Leaders identified an opportunity to revise their traditional student support communication strategies.

Acting quickly, the department encouraged faculty and staff members with high “approachability” ratings to reach out directly to students at critical points in the term. This reframe of student support services led to measurable improvements in students’ experience.

Data spotlight: 

Read more about this change leadership effort.  

3. Embed champions at every organizational level

Change leadership goals need support during every designated rollout phase as well as at every institutional level. Integrating buy-in from the start provides you with opportunities to address barriers to change before they can derail your objective.

Change in Action

Goal: Improve student outcomes by enabling academic counselors to better support working adult learners.

To enhance engagement with their working adult students, one university chose to train more than 500 academic counselors in coaching-based student support. Trainers collectively prepared counselors to holistically support students and help them overcome barriers to persistence.

Here’s how leadership created buy-in:

  • Early on, leaders built support for the coaching program and were trained in the new coaching methodology.
  • Counselors were invited to offer feedback on the change, offering insights that leadership incorporated into the roll-out.
  • Leaders prioritized new processes designed to ensure the program’s ongoing efficacy.

To assist integration into the university’s culture, leaders consistently reinforced the goals and purpose of the coaching program at all stages of the rollout.  

Data spotlight: 

Read more about this multi-phase organizational change effort.


For more examples and insights into leading change, download our institutional change “cheat sheet.”

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