Student success has been a hot topic in higher education for some time. While its concept is nothing new, how it is defined and measured is continually evolving. Student retention and graduation rates are among the more common and valued metrics used to measure student outcomes, however, these measurements are attracting some company. There are more success factors that schools are beginning to appreciate, but implementing and measuring them can be challenging.
In a recent “To A Degree” podcast from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Dan Greenstein, director of Education for Post-Secondary Success at The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, discusses some of the issues surrounding student success. He believes the value in postsecondary education is obvious – it is a reliable pathway into the middle class. “We know that some education after high school results in higher salaries, more secure jobs, greater civic engagement and by 2025, we estimate our workforce will need about 11 million more people with postsecondary credentials than our colleges and universities are on track to produce.”
The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released numbers suggesting college enrollment rates are decreasing, despite the fact that more students are graduating from high school. The percentage of high-school graduates who immediately enrolled in college fell from 69 percent in 2008 to 66 percent in 2013. One of the biggest issues is cost. Postsecondary education is expensive and many millennials simply don’t believe there is value in it.
Most importantly, Greenstein and the Foundation believe accessibility is a greater issue, particularly since there are so many scholarships and financial aid available to students of all economic demographics. They believe it is critical to making postsecondary opportunities more available to students of all backgrounds, stages of life, and socioeconomic status to achieve equity. How are higher education institutions answering this challenge?
Technology Is Only Half of the Equation
Many higher learning institutions turn to technology in order to achieve equity and excellence, but as Greenstein says, programs are equally as important. “Higher education institutions must redefine how students progress through their educational journey and no single solution is enough to transform the institution to better serve students. Schools need to be redesigned around students and their needs, their pathways. We must get students on a path and keep them there to succeed. How will schools integrate various solutions to make that happen? It will require key capabilities, leadership, data-driven decision-making, and change management, to name a few.”
If these initiatives are intended to boost retention and student success, the next question must be how success will be measured. An institution’s performance is more than just how many students enroll and graduate. In order to deliver the most effective student intervention, all students must be segmented by race, income and other demographics to determine how well higher education is serving all students.
Are all students receiving the resources, the advising, the intervention they need to succeed? We have some data that gives us some insight into how well institutions are doing. Plenty of research has focused on student outcomes. One of the more sobering reports came from the National Center for Education Statistics. They found that up to 40 percent of first-time, full-time students who enrolled in a 4-year postsecondary institution never graduated.
When students feel overwhelmed, even lost, they are more likely to give up. When simple tasks become difficult, either because technology hasn’t caught up with student requirements or the process to complete those tasks are too complicated, students avoid them. They miss deadlines, they register for courses that do not contribute to their degrees, and they run out of money before they’ve graduated. Students who ask for help may receive it, but many students do not ask. They do not schedule appointments with advisors or they wait until little can be done to get them back on the right pathway.
While it is ultimately up to the student to follow their pathway, many schools are not implementing preventative measures until it is too late. This begs the question as to whether these higher education institutions have the technology and programs in place to identify and offer assistance to all at-risk students early in their academic career.
As important as these issues are, increasingly more emphasis is being put on additional factors that contribute to student success, including post-graduation outcomes. This makes sense, of course, considering the fact that students attend colleges and universities in order to improve their career opportunities. If an institution is failing to provide adequate education in order for students to fulfill their career goals, how can it consider itself contributing to student success? And if institutions aren’t measuring student success beyond graduation, how does it know it provided value to students?
What metrics are we to use to gauge post-graduation success? Greenstein mentions employment rates, earnings, and student debt default are components of success that should also be considered, as well as costs to the institution to deliver a quality education. Value is what it comes down to – does the student perceive their experience as valuable and can the institution deliver that value in a cost-effective way?
Institutions must begin to measure student success beyond the four to six years the student is enrolled in the college or university. The value of a student’s postsecondary education can really only be accurately quantified when in context with the student’s overall career success.
Technology and Programs
While some higher education institutions are further down the innovation road, many are still trying to determine how best to deliver value to their students. Greenstein points out that institutions are motivated by doing the right thing and focusing on student outcomes, but money is also always at issue. “When it’s more expensive to lose a student than retain a student, you begin to think systematically about how to do that.”
For schools who place value on student outcomes and continually strive to implement technology and programs to enable them, partnering with experts to help them get there is critical. These innovations aren’t always simple and can require integrating multiple technologies, revamping processes that have been in place for decades or longer, and changing mindsets. Any solution takes time not only to customize and develop but to roll out. It can take years for the students to realize the benefits, making it important for schools to begin sooner than later.