It’s an unusually exciting time in higher education. Many innovative ideas for reforming open access colleges are being tested across the country in a massive effort to improve how they educate their students.
But, no matter how good the ideas are, the success of these reforms will depend on whether they become embedded in how institutions work. As college faculty and staff know well, reforms met with initial fanfare all too often fade away without any impact on students. But, as colleges fight for funding and attempt to show policymakers their value in training the next-generation workforce, they are motivated to change. Often the real question is how to go about it.
For four years, we studied how colleges are adopting advising technologies—what we call iPASS or Integrated Planning and Advising for Student Success—and this has given us a much clearer understanding of how transformative change happens in higher education. We used iPASS to understand why major reforms—on the scale of developmental education reform or guided pathways—can barely scratch the surface at some colleges while at others they can lead to deep and sustained transformation by fundamentally reorganizing how education and educational services are delivered and experienced.
What we found was that change is possible but by no means easy. Only half the colleges in our study were able to implement their reforms in a way that transformed how services were delivered to students. The successful colleges had several things in place before they started: They began with a clear vision for change, developed multi-tiered and collaborative leadership structures, and had cultures oriented toward holistic student success.
For a reform to be integrated into the functioning of a college, our study found that change needed to happen at several levels:
- Structural: Changes to the organization or design of systems and business practices.
- Process: Changes in individual engagement, behaviors, and interactions with systems and business practices.
- Attitudinal: Changes in underlying attitudes, values and beliefs.
For instance, change in how personnel approached their work could be stymied by a lack of institutional support. Similarly, a new initiative imposed from above could result in little impact on students if end users kept working as they always had.
Leadership’s role in implementation turned out to be a key factor. Institutional and project leaders needed to share the vision for change, effectively communicate the need for the change to end users, and have the authority and legitimacy to get them to change how they work.
To look at how colleges implement advising redesigns, we researched six colleges over 18 months, each of which won a grant to implement new technologies and were therefore, at some level, motivated to change. We measured the extent to which the colleges were able to shift from a model where advisors mostly functioned as registration clerks to one where advisors had more intensive, personalized and sustained relationships with students to help them navigate college and make choices about majors and careers. Technologies like education planning and early alert systems—designed to take some of the burden off overloaded advisors and give them tools for deeper and more sustained advising—provided the impetus for reform.
But we found that iPASS, like other potentially transformational reforms, could go either way. It could remain merely a technological tool within existing advising practices. Or it could be a catalyst for a movement towards more of a holistic case management model.
Though every college was able to get the technology up and running, the tech tool wasn’t enough on its own. Where we saw movement on the continuum from advisors as registration clerks to a more ideal form of advising, we noted significant shifts in structures, processes and attitudes, validating the theory that change must happen along several dimensions to be transformative.
One college, for instance, did change its structures to leverage new program planning and early-alert technology. The college hired additional advisors, shifted their job responsibilities so that they were all generalists, merged disparate student development divisions into a single function focused on retention, advising, transfer, and disability services, and standardized advising documents to facilitate a consistent student experience.
However, interviews with key personnel indicate that processes did not shift along with structures. Advisors viewed iPASS as a technical upgrade that enabled them to do what they were already doing more efficiently but they did not change how they advised. So it’s no surprise that students still found the advising to be formulaic.
Other colleges were well on their way to transformation by the end of the study. One college used the technology to reform an inconsistent advising system by implementing a model where all incoming students started with an assigned retention coordinator and later graduated to a faculty advisor. That and other changes—including consistent communication of how holistic student support would help more students finish their programs—made advising clearer, improved coordination across departments and expanded the feeling of responsibility for student success.
Though our study focused on technology-mediated advising reform, the results have broader theoretical implications, providing a clearer idea of what it means to transform higher education while understanding that transformation cannot be identified or measured along a single dimension. In order to transform, colleges have to go beyond structural redesign and make changes at the very heart of students’ interaction with the college. And that requires changing not only processes and procedures, but culture and behavior.