How Can Colleges Better Support Student Success & Better Outcomes?

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Parents and students are concerned their investments in higher education may not be worth the price tag. College presidents are feeling pressure, and the accreditation process is under scrutiny. Even the White House is pushing for more transparency on completion and post-graduation outcomes to aid consumers in decision-making.

According to the Los Angeles Times, federal data shows tuition at four-year colleges more than doubled in the past 30 years, and officials say completion and default rates are correlative. Students who don’t graduate after taking out loans face a default rate three times higher than that of their fellow borrowers who do graduate.

Although the nation’s focus on these issues has increased, they’re not new. In fact, Boston College Magazine ran an article in the 1970s titled “To the Organized Go the Students” which noted, “Enrollment management is a process that brings together often disparate functions having to do with recruiting, funding, tracking, retaining, and employing students as they move toward, within, and away from the institution.”

Shifting Focus From Access to Success

For decades, higher education was focused on increasing access. Today, getting more people into college isn’t sufficient. It’s now essential to get students through college and on to meaningful careers.

To that end, we’re seeing a shift in how states fund higher education. Thirty-two states have instituted outcomes-based funding for higher education, and that number is only growing. We’re also seeing institutions of higher learning make significant operational changes to better support student success.

The goal of improving student outcomes today requires greater teamwork and communication among disparate entities within the organization. Without a standard model to follow, administrators must devise systems that work with the mission, culture, and traditions of their institutions.

Fortunately, as the higher education system continues to change and student success rightfully takes top priority, there are a variety of tactics that can be employed to affect positive change to help students succeed in school and after.

A More Holistic View of the Student Experience

First, institutions must take a more comprehensive view of the student life cycle to create more cohesive channels of support as they advance from newly enrolled students to postgraduates.

Colleges and universities are increasingly creating strategic enrollment management (SEM) executive positions with centralized responsibility for admissions, retention, and completion. The organizational model for this function varies from institution to institution, but the most successful examples combine ample authority, strong cultural alignment, and clear lines of communication.

It’s important to remember that SEM models work across an entire institution, not just within certain departments. Done properly, enrollment management brings recruiting, financial aid, retention, career services, and other key functions under one umbrella. Together, these functions can provide a more holistic perspective on student life.

Getting Students Off to a Strong Start

Forward-thinking institutions are also incorporating “strong start” initiatives into the enrollment process. These initiatives often include coaching or other personalized assistance to make sure students have carefully thought through their financial commitments, can balance work and family obligations, and have the right mindsets to persevere through inevitable setbacks. Such investments can increase student success rates and improve yield.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham and Penn State World Campus are examples of institutions successfully applying this approach. Their initiatives resulted in increased enrollment conversions and better insights on students’ decision-making behavior.

The Nonacademic Side of Student Success

Lastly, institutions can create a more positive student experience by providing support for enrolled students outside of academics. Supporting student success is about more than just offering tutoring and financial aid. Students often struggle to fit into the school community and balance work, family, or other obligations with their academic responsibilities.

Many universities are putting nonacademic support programs in place to address these issues. For example, a number of state institutions in Indiana have joined forces on a professional coaching program tailored to first-generation and low-income students. Meanwhile, Arizona State University’s coaching program is focused on working adults enrolled in ASU Online.

These types of programs also raise flags regarding other student-related issues — like account holds or critical financial information — that could otherwise go unnoticed and hinder students’ educational experiences. Increasing awareness of potential obstacles helps administrators work directly with individual students to mitigate risks and support their progress.

Setting up a strong network of mentors is another way of empowering students to proactively identify problems while there’s still time to solve them.

Overall, higher education presents many challenges for students beyond just making the grade, and only the institutions that help students overcome personal obstacles will truly fulfill their purpose.

About the Author: Pete Wheelan, CEO of InsideTrack, has dedicated his career to leading mission-driven, high-growth companies focused on helping individuals live up to their full potential. Before joining InsideTrack, he served as chief operating officer and chief revenue officer at Blurb, a groundbreaking leader in unleashing creative expression through self-published books.