Have We Gotten Student Success Completely Backward?

Between 2003 and 2014, in collaboration with the consulting firm EAB, Georgia State University led a revolution in student success. Through a series of pilot programs that grew into a sweeping campus-culture shift, Georgia State raised its six-year graduation rate to 54 percent from 32 percent while simultaneously nearly doubling its percentage of Pell-eligible students. The institution’s website calls it a “national model for student success,” and the story was told triumphantly last year in a book titled Won’t Lose This Dream: How an Upstart Urban University Rewrote the Rules of a Broken System.

And indeed, many of the practices Georgia State created or put in place (such as freshman learning communities, supplemental instruction, and retention grants) have become common at colleges across the country. Ten years ago, such tactics were groundbreaking.

EAB, formerly the Education Advisory Board, has been at the heart of this change. Its research culture and success in packaging the use of institutional data to find barriers to student success, and its focus on “nudging” good behavior took systematic student-success solutions to another level. Suddenly, it seemed like all of higher ed was mining data, building platforms, and hiring advising teams (and often EAB itself).

For much of this time, I was the chief enrollment officer at Salisbury University, in Maryland. The university had seen its retention rate bounce around but never really grow above 80 percent. Although it was identified as one of the top institutional priorities, when we began, retention had no dedicated staff and no real budget. We had no VP (or assistant vice president) for student success, no pot of funds to do predictive analytics, and certainly no armada of data analysts to glean insights from that data if it had somehow fallen into our laps.

Instead, we did what we could. We created a group of midlevel managers that we called the Retention Think Tank, a real “coalition of the willing.” We adopted two guiding principles based on the best practices: 1. Change students’ behavior by “nudging” them toward helpful practices, like registering for a full load of credits to keep them on track or getting them to select a major in a timely manor; and, 2. Remove barriers to success by changing internal policies that work against students. In other words, we wanted to find the roadblocks and remove them.

We made some progress. We instituted calling campaigns, hosted fairs for undecided students, incorporated early advising for high-attrition majors, and tested small financial awards for returning-student retention. We engaged a wide swath of campus, set up a data-analytics platform, and created an advising center. Initially we saw some success, increasing retention by 4 percent over two years. But then we plateaued again at that new base line.

We looked for better data. We asked every student why they were leaving. Every time they answered in almost equal parts — financial, academic, social, family, fit, homesickness — but there was no clear enemy for us to conquer.

We have come to mistrust elegant, simple solutions in favor of complex, technocratic approaches.

In other words, we did our best — with limited resources — to emulate the Georgia State playbook. And it worked — but only in a narrow and limited sense.

Shouldn’t true progress on retention feel like more of a victory? Nationally, about a third of students leave their institutions after one year. Each year, 25 percent of students leave higher ed altogether. These numbers have been mostly flat for the past decade, other than an additional 2-percent drop during the pandemic.

The fact is that, collectively, we are not moving the needle. Yes, a few colleges are hitting it out of the park. Georgia State was able to mobilize a perfect storm of robust data, strong leadership, state scholarship resources, and a culture of innovation. But as a field, we are throwing a lot of spaghetti at the wall, and very little is sticking.

Salisbury University was not a wealthy institution, but it was not without its advantages. It benefited from its larger size. It had some leverage (as a state institution) to purchase a high-priced retention platform and add staff. But what about small institutions, and those with few resources? What hope do they have of ever making progress in the complicated, tech-intensive, and — above all — costly path we’ve embraced industrywide on retention and student success?

Around 2015, Salisbury’s career-services director, Kevin Fallon, introduced me to the findings of the Gallup-Purdue Index, which he presented to prospective students at all of our open houses. This study, often referred to as “The Big 6 for Student Success,” polled over 30,000 students and correlated on-time graduation, career engagement, and overall well-being to whether students had been exposed to a set of six experiences in college. These experiences included items like faculty who made them excited about learning and cared about them as a person, a long-term project or internship where they could apply what they were learning, a mentor, and high involvement in extracurricular activities.

Only 3 percent of students reported all six factors, while roughly 25 percent did not report even one. A colleague of mine, Eric Baldwin, vice president for student development at the University of Lynchburg, summarized it like this: “Gallup shows us that students need two basic things to feel like they belong. They need to know someone on campus has their back, and they need a chance to do something really meaningful to them at least once a week.”

That’s it? Two simple things? Could it be that all this time, we have been asking the wrong questions? Maybe while we are out collecting data, looking for red flags, and trying to anticipate student deficits, what we really should be doing is making sure every single student has a reason to stay and can articulate what that reason is.

My son went off to college in the fall of 2020 as a freshman at Mount Vernon Nazarene University, in Ohio. It was the middle of the pandemic, so he had to be tested for Covid-19 every week and was constantly concerned about being sent home early. When I asked him what got him through the first year with all of the restrictions and challenges, he said, “My RA, Zach, really helped me figure out the stress and my studies, and I loved playing intramural volleyball.” Huh, one person to have your back and one thing to do.

College students deal with financial problems, mental-health challenges, social conflicts, dating issues, and academic deficits. They choose the wrong major, party too much, wreck their car, go home too often, oversleep, and make the wrong friends. Our retention models are generally based on correcting these negatives. We usually look for the outliers in the data and try to fix the factors we can (somewhat) control.

But there are too many possibilities for problems, and colleges will never be able to anticipate and prevent them all. It is just not feasible, even with years of historical data, complex platforms, and a list of tracked indicators. These potential issues add up, and all it takes is one bad interaction with your business office to push students out the door.

But what if looking for the deficits and trying to correct them is not the most effective approach? What if instead of limiting the negatives, we could help students find positives that would outweigh them? You can’t anticipate or compensate for every potential storm, but you can give a ship an anchor.

Many career centers and alumni offices have embraced the principles behind Gallup’s findings. Furman University, in South Carolina, partnered with Gallup to build the Big 6 principles into its Furman Advantage program. Staff members now actively track the percentage of their students who achieve these experiences compared with national averages, and they partner with businesses to help strengthen their career outcomes. The student-success field largely ignored these approaches, however. Why? Perhaps we have come to mistrust elegant, simple solutions in favor of complex, technocratic approaches. Perhaps, after a decade of algorithms and spreadsheets, we’ve lost the appetite for old-fashioned advising.

Imagine simply asking each of your students: “Who is your mentor? Who on campus has your back?” If they don’t have an answer, we help them find one.

What if we helped students identify their most meaningful activity — whether it is research, a work-study job, or intramural volleyball — and challenged and supported them to go deeper with it? Rather than seeing students as “at-risk” or in a deficient category compared with the norm, what if we see them as needing to develop and understand their own motivations?

The great news is that most institutions already have structures in place to support this approach. Most students have an adviser who could ask these questions and help students be aware of the Big 6 data. In his prospective-student presentation, Kevin Fallon would say: “Raise your hand if you want to be happier and more successful in your career and in your life. Raise your hand if you and your family want to get the most out of your college investment. Then here are the six things you need to do.”

You can’t anticipate or compensate for every potential storm, but you can give a ship an anchor.

Faculty can also be part of the solution, working the Big 6 goals into their courses and syllabi by giving students long-term projects, getting to know them personally, and helping them to engage with the material. Student-development staff can help by assisting students in finding their “meaningful activity” and training them to lead in it. And every single one of us who works on a college campus can make a difference by connecting with a few students and letting them know we have their backs.

This may be an especially promising approach for small institutions and for those with very limited resources. If you can’t afford to build a retention platform, create a student-success center, or hire more advisers, you can still do what many of us got into this business to do in the first place: help students understand who they are and imagine what they could become. You can help them be successful, not by trying to fix their myriad deficits, or anticipate the many ways they could fall off the track, but by helping them understand their own motivations and build on them.

There are many reasons students might choose to leave us, but often it takes only one good reason for them to stay. You can be that reason.

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