Years ago, students largely relied upon their own talents and effort to achieve college success. Attitudes have changed, however. Higher education institutions are placing greater emphasis on improving student retention and supporting students through graduation. Today, schools are challenged to emphasize success rather than access.
There are a number of reasons for this shift. Government funding and accrediting agencies are holding schools accountable for their outcomes. They’re pushing for higher and faster rates of degree completion. Students now take a consumer approach to education, balancing pros and cons to determine value and ROI, and they’re not afraid to transfer if expectations aren’t met.
These students have more diverse and complex backgrounds than ever, from first-generation college students to adult learners trying to balance work, family and education. Students from different socioeconomic backgrounds often require different levels of academic, financial and social support to succeed.
There is also a very real cost factor involved. Just like the cost for a business to acquire a new customer is far higher than the cost to retain an existing customer, the cost to recruit new students to maintain enrollment numbers is far higher than the cost to retain current students.
For these and other reasons, student retention and success requires an integrated approach across the institution. In other words, student success must be a fundamental part of the core business model.
Institutions must first define what success looks like. What are our biggest challenges? What are our specific goals? What factors contribute to improved retention in today’s educational landscape? What are the attributes and behaviors of successful students? How do we determine if a student is at risk? How will we measure and report success so we know if our efforts are paying off?
The definition of success should be based not assumptions but on data collected through engagement with students, educators and administrators. This will ensure that the definition of success is shared, supported and visible across the institution.
The most important step is to take student success and retention from a concept or goal to an executable strategy. How can we use data we’ve collected to enable early intervention and provide at-risk students with the academic and social support they need? What tools can we deploy that will allow us to closely monitor students and quickly respond to their needs? What resources can we provide, and how can we increase awareness of these resources? How can we better collaborate to improve outcomes?
Schools must not only be able to identify at-risk students but ensure that these students receive the assistance they need. Waiting until the end of the semester or even midterms is too late. It’s not enough to say that support services are available. If no process is in place for identifying these students and intervening as early as possible, the odds of success decrease.
A centralized student information system can be used in each phase of this process, from defining success to developing and executing a student retention strategy. Technology simplifies the collection and analysis of data, accelerates collaboration and engagement, provides fast access to program resources, and generates reports used to measure effectiveness. The key is to use data to anticipate student needs instead of reacting to them.
The competitiveness of higher education requires schools to take a more active role in the success of their students. A coordinated effort that leverages technology and data will improve the success of retention programs and ensure that students receive the help they need, when they need it.