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The Problem with "Best Practice"

There are certain things that, when I step onto a college campus, I just know I'm going to hear.

"We tend to have lots of silos here."

"Something about our institution - we just LOVE to make acronyms. It's like alphabet soup!"

"Oh the parking here is terrible."

It's amusing to me because most higher education professionals don't get to visit and observe other organizations on a regular basis, so they're generally unaware that these perceived quirks are actually quite the opposite: they are, in fact, ubiquitous. Thus, I get to hear them all the time, and I can (and do) chuckle to myself upon each utterance. But people within these institutions don't get a chance to witness the many peers who feel exactly the same way.

Perhaps my favorite of these clichés is, "Well... our institution is unique."

Nearly every institution of higher education looks at their blend of student population, geographic situation, governance, mission, resources, and personnel and thinks that there can't be another college or university that's dealing with the same set of challenges in the same way.

To be clear, I completely agree. When you factor in all the variables I just mentioned - as well as those I omitted - it's nearly impossible to look at any challenge an institution faces and assume that what works there would work elsewhere. What works for the University of Pennsylvania is unlikely to work at Penn State, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education institutions, or any of the community colleges in PA... right?

The Paradox of 'Best Practice"

This leads me to my next cliché. Whenever I talk to institutions about the solutions they're employing, the answer usually sounds something like, "Oh, well we're implementing best practice." These last two words are often emphasized with a tone of reverence, as if to suggest that "best practice" is both sacrosanct and obvious. The implied statement always sounds to me like, "well we're doing precisely what we should be doing and what any sane, reasonable educator would."

I've always been oddly interested in the term "best practice." Who determines what is best practice? Certainly, places like the National Educational Association and the Association of American Colleges and Universities have published lists best practices, but where did they come from? What was the process for deeming these the best? What were the alternatives?

In some cases I find "best practice" to mean that the approach is research-based, but in an equal number of cases, I find it to be the opposite. The term can also refer to actual tactics that another institution used and observed to be successful, thus this new institution has adopted it for at least one of several reasons: the practice has some evidence of effectiveness, it's been used in a practical setting, or it comes from a peer.

You may have guessed it by now, but herein lies the paradox that I see underlying most strategies in higher education. On one hand, institutions view themselves as unique, one of a kind, and incomparable to other institutions. On the other hand, when they seek to adopt solutions, they look to what everyone else is doing. These statements shouldn't really exist in the same space.

But how do we - as a system of higher education, as well as individual institutions thereof - get better? In looking at ways to progress, I think there are a few key points we should accept in order to address this paradox.

We're not all that different

Institutions are indeed unique, but probably much less so than we'd like to believe. What is essential to progress, however, is understanding if and how those differences would impact the potential solution at hand.

For example, several years ago I was working with a group of public colleges and universities on a first-year experience initiative. The goal was to reconsider the mechanisms by which we on-board students in an effort to drastically change the processes and results relating to student success.

This group had traditionally been, like many other organizations, a peer-led forum, allowing members to share best practice among one another, and this initiative was no exception. (As an example, you couldn't present at one of this group's meetings without co-presenting with a member institution.) A select group of institutions were invited to participate and generate potential solutions. While an advisory board of experts was available for guidance, emphasis was on collaborative problem solving by the institutions themselves. The tone was quite clear: this problem was going to be solved by this group of institutions understanding and learning from the context of their populations.

However, having also done work in the community college sector, I saw great practice there and thus spoke to one of the group's senior leaders. I recommended that CC's might be a great place to look, and recommended a few speakers they could invite. After all, CC's are some of the most student-oriented institutions there are, and they're far more used to working with limited budgets. These two variables were, in my opinion, the keys to what this initiative was facing, given the emphasis on student success and the limited budgets of public institutions.

Fortunately, they were amenable, and a future meeting featured an engaging and innovative community college president. I was immensely pleased to see the president get the recognition they deserved, as well as to hear of the valuable lessons that the four-year attendees took away from the community college's work. Certainly, there were many relevant differences, but it didn't impede the ability of learning to take place.

This was perhaps a best-case scenario: a select group of institutions, focused on (i.e., willing to) change, and guided by a group of innovative thought leaders. In many cases, the translation from community college to four-year institution would have been a deal-breaker for audiences, but this is an oversight. There is too much good work out there to be focused on where it came from and if they are similar. Instead, we should be asking questions such as, "how are we alike?" and "what will we need to consider to make this work for us?"

The underlying flaws of a "best practice"

When colleges and universities are willing to consider input - from peer-institutions or otherwise - there are still some limitations to relying on best practice. One that immediately comes to mind is equity. Generally we find out about best practice by going to conferences (back in the pre-Covid days when we had the luxury of doing so), listening to webinars, or other means of knowledge exchange.

The time and resources needed to access such media tend to favor a limited number of institutions, and those generally aren't our Tribal Colleges and Universities, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or other Minority Serving Institutions. Even working with rural community colleges (which carry no MSI designation), it's clear to me that access to these exchanges is not equal to large, urban systems. Thus, much like with our students, those who have already had advantages seem to benefit more when resources and strategies become available.

This could be one of the reasons why our approach to institutional change has done little to improve student success. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the 6-year graduation rate increased by only 4.3 percentage points from the cohort starting in 1996 to the cohort starting in 2010, and the increase was only .4 percentage points for African Americans. Yes, certain institutions will show gains by implementing "best practice," but our system as a whole is still generally pretty poor at graduating students.

Another challenge may be the way in which we view best practices as a dichotomous proposition. We either do it or we don't. Take, for example the aforementioned list of "high impact practices" provided by AAC&U. It includes interventions such as first-year seminars, learning communities, and internships.

Each of these has a WIDE range of implementation fidelity, and many institutions will review their progress after adopting such a practice and see little impact. For example, while first-year seminars have been shown to have varying effects on student success outcomes (raning from "small" to "positive;" Kuh et al., 20006; Permzadian & Credé, 2016), the same researchers will often note that these interventions can take a wide-array of forms, which might account for the variance in findings. (Indeed, Kuh et al. point this out for several interventions in their review of student success.)

Again, institutions should reflect on how a practice should be adopted and what should change, given their context, rather than flatly accepting a practice because it's worked at a peer institution.

So how DO we get better?

I've worked with and alongside many organizations over the years in various efforts to improve student success. Most often, we're taking different approaches to our work with institutions. While I focus on assessments and data, another might be working on educational technology, innovative pedagogy, or financial assistance. I welcome these differing approaches, and have often equated our work to massive pile of laundry. There's a lot to be done, and it's totally fine if I fold the shirts while you pair the socks - there's more than enough space for each of us.

But how do institutions make the decision about where to start with their pile of laundry? Well, let's first begin with their reliance on best practice. This certainly may seem like self-serving advice, but there are organizations, research centers, and - dare I say it - companies out there that can help improve your practice. The trick comes in weeding out the snake oil and financially motivated from those who are truly trying to help.

In order to figure that out, institutions should also invest in a resource that will help them better understand their local context: assessment and research. In order to understand the similarities and differences between you and other institutions, you need the same types of folks who will help you determine whether an ed-tech platform is right for you. Strategic and practically-minded assessment and IR personnel are not easy to find by any means, but they are worth their weight in institutional will, which is perhaps the most valuable resource of all.


  • Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J. L., Buckley, J. A., Bridges, B. K., & Hayek, J. C. (2006). What matters to student success: A review of the literature (Vol. 8). Washington, DC: National Postsecondary Education Cooperative.

  • Permzadian, V., & Credé, M. (2016). Do first-year seminars improve college grades and retention? A quantitative review of their overall effectiveness and an examination of moderators of effectiveness. Review of Educational Research, 86(1), 277-316.

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