Although many higher education institutions have for years sought to improve student success (increasingly known as student experience), the visible struggle of many students during COVID-19 renewed the urgency around institutions getting it right—right now. More schools are professionalizing advising, creating new student success divisions, and restructuring student and academic affairs to streamline oversight and operations related to the student experience. Additionally, investments in software for tracking student analytics, campus engagement, and student success are on the rise.
Unfortunately, student success initiatives are challenging to pull off because they require institutions to collaborate across traditional silos, practice good data governance, and implement culture change at multiple levels. Given the difficulty of these things, it’s easy for everyone to instead get caught up in shiny new student success technology. However, efforts will ultimately fall short if institutions ignore the hard work of personal and operational change.
It’s not unusual for campus CIOs to be invited late to the student success conversation, just in time to discuss technology needs and implementation. Nevertheless, IT leaders must slow the institutional roll just long enough to ask the following challenge questions:
Successful initiatives begin with a thoughtful exploration and a clear definition of student success at the institution. Traditionally, student success centered on metrics like student retention, graduation, degree completion times, and postgraduation outcomes (if an institution was lucky enough to have the data). However, forward-thinking institutions are taking a more holistic view of success, including social, academic, professional, and personal wellness variables. They monitor how well students
Holistic definitions of student success encourage advisors, faculty, and support staff to be proactive and attend to all variables known to impact retention and degree completion without waiting for high-risk academic scenarios (e.g., academic probation, conduct concerns, leave of absences) to occur.
They also allow institutions to put their mission-driven spin on student success. Every institution reports its retention and graduation rates, but a school that prides itself on service learning, study abroad, or other high-impact practices will want to optimize its programming and tell those stories, too.
The holistic nature of student success and the change management associated with these initiatives require early buy-in across the institution. Representation varies depending on the institution’s structure, but it typically includes academic affairs, student affairs, the registrar, institutional research, and information technology, along with input from financial aid, career services, admissions, and high-impact learning centers. Institutions will also want to consider when to bring student leaders to the table to provide input on definitions for success, current systems gaps, privacy protections, and proposed solutions.
Student success technologies are complicated and include diversified and overlapping functionality. Campus leaders can become easily distracted and confused when they do not have a clear understanding of the best practices they are trying to facilitate with technology. Therefore, it is essential to identify which student success strategies and people-driven processes fit the institution’s goals and gaps before shopping for technology solutions.
Modern approaches to student success focus on student navigation through the institution, reducing frustration and opportunities for them to fall through the cracks. Consider the following trends:
While people-driven processes always form the core of student success initiatives, data also plays a significant role in supporting institutional storytelling and continuous improvement. Institutions prepared to leverage student success technologies have strong data governance practices, clear data definitions, and a strategy for collecting multi-source data. (To assess your campus’ readiness, see the Tambellini Group’s Digital Data Governance Adventure.)
Data warehousing solutions that offer a single integration strategy for student success platforms are trending as part of the student success conversation. However, institutions that opt to integrate multiple systems should remember to include the complete student lifecycle from admissions to advancement into their integration plan.
Student privacy and data also go hand in hand. Confirming that technologies are FERPA-ready is not enough. Spend time reviewing vendor and institutional data retention policies and role-based access to information. Talk with students and front-line support about how to interpret analytics and leverage push notifications in ways that are useful rather than invasive.
Finally, like many of the technology-intensive implementations seen on campuses today, student success is less about the technology and more about the people and processes that leverage it. Successful student success initiatives require consistent and comprehensive dedication to humanized education (see this recent Tambellini post on humanized learning for details), which will mean sustained change management and educational efforts on some campuses. Make sure to advocate for the time and resources required to ensure buy-in, support professional development, evaluate and change processes, and train users on new practices and technology.
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