Why are the Biggest Barriers to Student Success Bureaucratic?

Opinion | Higher Education

Why are the Biggest Barriers to Student Success Bureaucratic?

By Angela Baldasare     Mar 17, 2019

Why are the Biggest Barriers to Student Success Bureaucratic?

Institutions of higher education are facing greater challenges today than ever before. Administrators are grappling with increasing accountability measures, tenuous public support, and the emergent expectations of a diverse student population. At the same time, higher education leaders are also now able to tackle these challenges differently, through access to more abundant data and new tools aimed at improving student success.

Solutions to many of these problems are available, yet change can be slow. Too often, we conceptualize our challenges around student success as rooted in the deficits of students, when in reality, institutional process and the fragmentation of skills and knowledge more often present the biggest barriers to unlocking student success.

Take the University of Arizona, for example, where I served as an assistant provost for four years. There, a data warehouse and business intelligence system was built to provide easy access to data throughout the entire institution. Later we combined that data infrastructure with institutional research to improve strategic decision making.

Yet despite having prolific data dashboards, leaders continued to have difficulty obtaining the actionable information they needed to inform better, more timely student success efforts.

What’s more, countless third party systems continued to present challenges to integration of data across campus into our data warehouse where it could be made available to all. These weren’t just technical integration challenges—some campus leaders wanted to maintain ownership control over how data from processes in their areas would be presented, interpreted, used, and by whom.

To work through these systems challenges, we knew it was essential to gain the buy-in and participation of administrators and their teams across the institution and to begin sharing data insights.

This was crucial alongside the retention efforts happening at the university, such as University of Arizona’s tutoring center, the THINK TANK, increased resources dedicated to freshman courses that were highly correlated to retention and graduation rates, nudging campaigns informed by predictive analytics, and targeted financial aid.

Through these combined efforts, we were able to reach an 83.3 percent first-year student retention rate, an all-time high. And this was only possible after data and knowledge was shared across the institution.

Data siloing is not the only challenge facing higher education, and opening up data across an entire campus will not be a silver bullet. But it is emblematic of a large challenge that we all know often prevents us from reaching students with the greatest impact. The fragmentation of student success efforts across the campus remains a pervasive problem for most colleges and universities.

Admissions, financial aid, health centers, information technology, the president’s office, student affairs, and various academic departments and centers—these all possess great amounts of data, information and insight on students and their experiences. And each of these areas of campus share a common goal: student success. Naturally, they have other functions and concerns, as well. To live up to our potential, we need to focus not only on localized data needs but also, more broadly, how localized insights might benefit the work of colleagues with whom we may rarely or never interact. A healthy balance between centralized and local data capacity, and sharing across this divide, is essential.

Frequently, it is only student affairs or the provost’s office that explicitly embraces student success as a primary objective. But no single office or division can effectively tackle the challenges of ensuring students are succeeding on campus and after graduation. Not only do they lack the resources and staff, they lack the data. Even among student-centric departments, few offices have enough data to tell a student’s whole story. Instead, data is segmented into stages of a student’s educational life cycle. Data on recruitment, enrollment, persistence, engagement, progress, student surveys, and completion are all often siloed from one another, preventing an institution from developing a full picture of the students they are serving.

A report released earlier this year by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, or NASPA, found that data is “presently being used much more for mid- and senior-level decision making than for directly influencing students.” Nearly 90 percent of senior leaders and mid-level staff said they use data for decision making, according to the report, compared to just two-thirds of staff and faculty who work directly with students. How can we get actionable data not only in the hands of leadership, but also to those on the front lines?

Institutions must do more to break down data silos not only in the future, but in the present. In the current environment, new and profound philosophical questions about higher education management are surfacing by the day. Are the disparate factions within institutions able to set aside their interests to respond to the seminal challenge of improving student success?

Ultimately, student success can not only be the province of provost and student affairs offices. It must be a cross-functional endeavor that also integrates and absorbs the strengths of information technology, finance, and policy. It also needs to transcend central versus localized control as well, to engage the power of distributed action by those who work with students every day. Only then can institutions of higher learning move past the historic boundaries that separate us internally and hinder our ability to advance student success.

We think it’s the students who need fixing, but in reality it’s us that need to change how we work. What prevents us from doing the things we know we should be doing? It’s time to examine our own practices.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up