We Need a Strategy—Not a Silver Bullet—for Student Success

We Need a Strategy—Not a Silver Bullet—for Student Success


There is no disagreement that a great liberal arts education can be of value in the medium and long-term. However, the students from lower socioeconomic statuses do not have the financial resources to wait long enough to see the return.

As a pioneer of online, blended and emerging technologies within higher education, I know many of the people within higher ed leveraging new tools are looking for a silver bullet to help more students be successful. It is just as clear that it is going to require multiple tools or new digital pedagogy to improve student success for those students underserved in both of the lower socioeconomic quartiles.

Research from the Pell Institute and Institute of Educational Statistics shows the gap in bachelor’s degree attainment between the highest and lowest income groups has widened since 1970. Despite frequent attempts by politicians, regulators, educators and edtech to improve degree attainment for lower middle and lowest SES groups; nothing has changed.

Is there any hope for change? It is time to be more systemic and strategic. As most of us start a new academic year, we need to organize our thinking around multiple process improvements and innovations. Here are four places to start:

1. Create an innovation pipeline for teaching and learning.

Right now little innovation exists on the teaching and learning side of the university. If it exists at all, it is ad hoc—aided only by internal or external one-time grants. In “Creating a Learning Society,” authors Stiglitz and Greenwald explain the economics and incentives of innovation. The industry of higher education suffers under multiple inefficiencies to create a conducive environment for innovation. The inefficiencies on the teaching and learning side include: not enough sharing of best practices, a continued reliance on average practices (what has worked), lack of a competitive environment at the local level, and lack of R&D dedicated to improving teaching and learning.

2. Connect learning to jobs.

Lower SES students lack the time and funds, and are at constant risk from multiple potential setbacks (e.g., illness, loss of family income, transportation complications, lack of child/parent care) of having to withdraw, pause or drop out completely. Connecting the learning pathway to applicable job skills is critical. These connections can include institutions taking in prior learning, offering authentic projects that demonstrate evidence of business related skills, and virtual and physical internships. Virtual internships could be a better solution for lower SES students who cannot afford to participate in low or unpaid internships.

3. Improve the learner experience.

The learner experience starts with multiple interactions for students across services that often exist in silos. Even when best practices of marketing, usability and design thinking are applied, students will inevitably encounter the legal language of statutory regulation, which is always confusing to understand. This language is a barrier for students to be able to understand costs and fees, nuances of financial aid or even predictability of classes being scheduled. Adding to the learner burden is that best practices from the other fields aren’t regularly applied across campus websites.

Learners also need personalization. Most educators recognize that relationships with faculty help students stay motivated, but even relationships with any staff member can help students feel involved. Advisors will need to be trained and will need tools like early warning systems, customer/learner management systems and scheduling tools. Tracking students’ interactions amongst departments can provide critical insight into what is not working well for students and when and where institutional staff and faculty should intervene to help. The students who will benefit the most from advising are those who do not have a network of folks with successful college experiences.

It is equally important to improve learner experience in courses—especially gateway and early courses. One of the most promising aspects of personalization are that the tools help faculty identify through a dashboard struggling students and how to communicate in an empathetic and positively motivated way. Faculty may have to adjust to different cultural and economic backgrounds. Knowing when and how to communicate is critical to improving student success and we need to give faculty tools that will enhance the relationships they have with students.

4. Get better at lowering student costs.

Since students in the lower SES are continuously under pressure due to scarce resources, the reduction of education costs is critical to their success. Actions like lowering textbook costs through the use of open educational resources (OER) or digital courseware is a great start. Georgia State University recognized that students often need more financial help getting from one semester to the next. GSU can now prove that helping students with small loans is a better longer term return on investment, since more of these students then completed their degrees. Universities need to apply more return on investment and cost efficiency tactics to student success.

For students in the lowest SES who show ambition in high school by taking dual credits or AP courses, let’s really lower their costs by maximizing the transfer credit toward the degree. Along with strengthening dual credit, the streamlining of transfer credit is critical. The supply chain for students is broken. At best it works when a strong one-to-one relationship exist between two institutions (e.g. within CUNY or as mandated within the state of Florida), but for the most part students’ transfer credits depend on the registrar who depends on faculty to articulate the value in credit of a course. When credits are transferred they are often used as electives and not applied to a degree. Students are often acquiring more credits than they need.

It’s a student success strategy, not a silver bullet.

The need to leverage analytics is intrinsically tied to our improvements. There are huge amounts of data available. Leveraging it and using it to change the culture within an organization is still only practiced well by a handful of institutions, including St. Petersburg College, Sinclair Community College and Capella University, to name only a few institutions. What are they doing differently? The key differences are that their data is transparent and available, their leadership is collaborative with faculty and staff, and change is measured and successful interventions are scaled. We can only be more cost efficient if we know what interventions cost and are able to measure the success.

There is no one silver bullet for student success. Improved student success will need to be comprehensive and be a fit for the students at your institution. The big “aha!” is that improvement must be a coherent set of best practices, making student success a strategy.

Karen Vignare is a researcher and administrator leveraging emerging technology within higher education.

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