Five Ways to View the ROI of Student Support Services

Student support services can be notoriously difficult to defend when facing budget shortfalls and competing priorities. In reality, the positive impact of well-executed student services can not only pay for themselves but generate additional revenue to protect an institution’s long-term financial health.

What’s the litmus test for determining if a student services initiative is worth the investment? It can look different depending on the type of institution.

Whether you’re a CFO, CSAO or CAO, identifying and understanding the ROI paradigm at your institution can help you advocate for and sustain what is both right and effective. Following are five unique perspectives and case studies to help you explore the potential ROI at your institution.

1. Generate Additional Revenue

For resource-rich, flagship and even Ivy institutions, this additional revenue can be used to fund other initiatives beyond student success. In addition to the obvious revenue generated from increased enrollment and retention, revenue can come from sources such as increased alumni giving as students are more satisfied with their overall experience and enjoy improved career outcomes. There can also be gains from improved rankings and overall reputation. It’s even possible to generate more revenue than student support services can effectively use, creating opportunities to accelerate progress in other areas.

For example, in this interview, Larry Abele, provost emeritus of Florida State University, discusses how building an in-house coaching program helped the university generate an additional $9.6 million in annual revenue.

Tip: Identify the point at which student services are fully resourced. Resist the temptation to keep adding programs if the needs of students are being met. Leveraging additional revenue in other areas may do more to strengthen the overall institution and student experience.

2. Achieve Sustainability Through Efficiency

An under-resourced institution can make use of temporary funding to identify efficiencies and fundamentally transform its ability to serve students.

For example, Suzanne Harbin, director of advancement at Wallace State Community College, explains that a capacity building initiative enabled the college to hire an additional three full-time positions. By leveraging the opportunity afforded by a one-time grant, they were able to build a coaching program that could sustain itself indefinitely once the additional funding disappeared.

Tip: Apply temporary funding toward initiatives that invest in lasting student support capabilities. Demonstrating a track record of using additional resources to build institutional self-sufficiency, rather than dependency, will strengthen the case for additional grants or FTEs in the future.

3. Affect the Budget Cycle Bottom Line

Private, non-profit institutions that find themselves somewhere in the middle of the pack in terms of resources, rankings and selectivity, tuition discounting and increased competition for declining high school graduates, face an especially high-pressure budget situation. The reality for many is that failure to hit enrollment or retention numbers can wreak havoc on next year’s budget. The temptation is to allow these intense, short-term pressures to jeopardize long-term financial health.

In this example, a medium-sized private university balanced short- and long-term enrollment goals by investing in coaching for prospective and enrolled students simultaneously. The resulting cumulative 11.4 percent increase in total enrollment for the coached population more than paid for the program within a single academic year.

Tip: Balance short-term enrollment gains with the increased capacity to support those incoming students. Doing so will protect the investment of getting those students in the first place and prevent a retention cliff as they move into their sophomore year and beyond.

4. Break Even Eventually

For institutions with a mission that leans toward access, expectations to generate revenue may be somewhat relaxed, but that doesn’t mean the CFO is off the hook. Any expenditure that isn’t assumed to be absolutely necessary represents a risk to the institution and its decision-makers. It’s important to demonstrate due diligence and accountability even when launching popular initiatives with wide support.

For example, Chris Ruhl, chief financial officer of Ivy Tech Community College, discusses here how he used institutional data and certain assumptions about the expected gains of a coaching initiative to project its financial impact over the entire student lifecycle. Now, several years into the program, actual outcomes data have been fed back into the model revealing significantly better than expected gains.

Tip: Ask yourself if the resources in question are going toward the best possible option to generate positive student impact. Like a physician sworn to “first do no harm,” demonstrate that even in the worst case scenario, an initiative will not expose the institution to an unreasonable amount of risk or tie up critical resources that could prove more effective elsewhere.

5. Enhance Investments Across the Board

For institutions positioned at the bleeding edge of innovation—launching new programs, platforms and reaching new markets—investing in student success initiatives is a way to accelerate progress and get more out of other investments. The more aggressively an institution grows, the harder it is to maintain quality at scale. And the more innovative pathways and opportunities an institution presents to students, the more they need and expect effective support resources to help them tap into them.

For example, at Brandman University, various coaching initiatives across the entire student lifecycle (prospective, enrolled and career coaching) provide the institution with real-time data and feedback on the student experience. These insights help drive continuous improvement as they launch new programs including an innovative competency-based education option.

Tip: Balance investments in new programs and partnerships with student support. This will both mitigate issues as they arise and provide a mechanism for incorporating student feedback into a process of continuous improvement.

Doubling down shows students, faculty and staff that you are serious about making everything work and committed to the goals at hand. Initiative fatigue sets in when institutions fail to follow through on execution, and student services hold the most potential for driving meaningful student engagement with the full suite of investments you’ve already made.

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