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We forgot about student success

Updated: Jun 21, 2023

After a decade of emphasis on student success, a host of phenomena - the Covid-19 Pandemic, human and civil rights movements, mental health, hybrid learning, etc. - have drawn our attention away. Not only do we need to reemphasize student success, but reorganizing our institutions around students is probably the best strategy to address each one of these aforementioned issues.


It's not looking good...

One of my dearest friends and colleagues in higher education is Natasha Jankowski. Natasha is probably most well-known for her time as Executive Director at the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), but I've always admired her because - like me - she cares far more about transforming institutions for the sake of improving student outcomes than she does about publications, grant funding, or just about anything else.


We don't get to catch up often, but when we do, I always appreciate that we can immediately jump into an energetic conversation about what we're up to, what's bothering us, and what has us hopeful. Natasha and I began our careers around the same time, both initially focusing on student learning outcomes assessment, but also keeping an eye on the broader higher education culture and landscape. Over the last mumbleteen years, we've had unique perspectives on the national climate in higher education, the hot-button topics, etc. During a recent conversation, we both agreed upon a perceptible shift:


It used to be that we had ample will for change, but few resources. Now, it seems like we have ample resources, but little will.


Roughly ten years ago, I can remember having conversations with faculty, staff, and administrators alike, discussing the adoption of big initiatives such as campus-wide general education assessment, integrating noncognitive skills into student support initiatives, or wrap-around/holistic advising, and the conclusion would always be the same: gosh we'd love to do that but we just don't have the resources.


Admittedly, these may have been excuses. Perhaps the individuals with whom I was having these conversations were just being polite, knowing that they really didn't want to or otherwise couldn't implement these changes, but rather than being honest, decided to place an external limitation that was (shoulder shrug) just out of their control.


Then someone forwarded me the 2022 State Higher Education Finance Report, published by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, or SHEEO. While the SHEF report is rather long and complex, I really liked the headline published by Whiteboard Advisors: More Money, Fewer Students: State Higher Ed Funding Surpasses Pre-2008 Levels. While the SHEF report does confirm one half of the observation upon which Natasha and I agreed (i.e., that funding has become more available), it didn't address the issue of will.


Thus, I decided to look at Inside Higher Education's 2023 Survey of College and University Presidents. This survey, as it does each year, covers a wide array of topics, but there are a few findings in particular that support my hypothesis here. First, when asked, "How worried are you about the turnover rate of faculty and staff at your institution?" 56% of Presidents who responded were at least "somewhat worried" (only 13% were "not worried at all"). Next, when asked, "What do you think are the major causes of turnover at your institution?" more than half (56%) listed "burnout."


I think it's quite clear - between drops in public confidence in higher education and the impact of "The Great Resignation" on higher education - the overall climate in higher education is not in its best place right now. If anyone would disagree with me, I'm more than happy to hear it.


But why?


Because we've lost our way...

In case you forgot the title of this post by now, I think you can guess my reasoning behind this damage to the overall climate in higher education. To go back to the beginning of my career (again, some number of years ago that we don't need to count) we were in the very height of the student success movement. Regardless of what we were doing, most individuals working in higher ed at that time (namely faculty and staff) would tell you that student success was a priority. Most of our initiatives (e.g., student-learning outcomes assessment, transformative advising) were about refocusing our work on students. Admittedly - looking back at IHE Presidents Surveys from that time - institutional leaders were still focused on issues of finance, technology, and accreditation, but it certainly felt like those of us working on the ground were doing what mattered most: focusing on students.


Fast forward to today, and it feels like the movements of a decade ago really didn't change our institutions fundamentally. Student success is still not a foundational priority for our leaders. Looking through the IHE Presidents Survey, the term "student success" is only mentioned SIX times, and one of those is in an advertisement. Instead, the survey focuses on funding, the pandemic, and the ways colleges and universities are digitally transforming.


What I would argue is that all of these issues - and just about any you can list as concerns for Presidents over the last 13 years (since IHE began their survey) root from a fundamental flaw. Our institutions are neither built nor operated to focus on student success.


But here's how we get back on track.

I'm aware of the fact that I often talk about my work as a panacea. Indeed I once wrote a post on this site entitled, "When Every Equity Problem Looks Like a Noncognitive Nail." Then, just yesterday, while reading a book, I had an insight as to why.


A few weeks ago, my father-in-law-to-be gave me a book: Life Worth Living. Authored by three Yale philosophy professors, the book asks, as they put it, "The Question." The Question is not necessarily a singular pursuit or answer, but one of the major tenets is not to just ask what you are living for, but rather what is worth living for.


I'll spare you the width and breadth of self-exploration that the book offers (I highly recommend it, but it's one of those mind-bending experiences that exceeds the scope of this blog... and I'm not even through the third chapter!), but one of the reflections I experienced while reading dealt with the why of my work. Throughout my career, I've sought to merge the fields of predictive analytics and noncognitive assessment. "Target and tailor" was a phrase I thought of a while back: we use analytics to target the right level of engagement based on students' probability of success, then tailor the intervention based on students' noncognitive strengths and challenges.


What I realized in my reflection was precisely why I valued this approach so much. Obviously, there is a mountain of research that supports the effectiveness of analytics, the value of noncognitive skills in predicting success, and the efficacy of noncognitive interventions in improving retention, persistence, and myriad student outcomes. But the true value of this approach comes from its appeal as an institutional priority.


Imagine an institution where the sole purpose was student success. Every strategic planning, budget, and design exercise would center around the question of "what would be best for student success?" In my mind, the logical extension of that question would be to ask what are students' needs? How can we support them? How are we impeding their success in the ways we are built and operating now?


Understanding that not all students are the same, we would need a means of being flexible - through support, instruction, etc. - in responding to that question. Some students would require a path that can help them overcome challenges. Others would be ready to succeed, and our goal would be to help them maximize their success.


While noncognitive skills are certainly the catchiest part of my work, I am far more interested in the ability to use data to optimize our work. Not only does this help us figure out the best way to serve students, but it also helps the people working within higher education achieve their goals of transforming students and providing opportunity.


Throughout higher education, the old metaphor of "looking where the light is shining" has often been our downfall. For example, to improve student employability, we emphasized applied, "employable" skills, even when employers told us that it was broad-based critical thinking and the skills produced from a traditional liberal arts education that they valued most. Rather than refocusing on or prioritizing something we were already doing, we shifted to other areas.


Similarly, when we started to look at student success as a priority, we quickly got distracted by all of the issues mentioned here: mental health, digital infrastructure, and so on. All the while, we likely would have been better suited to building institutions that - above ALL else - prioritize student success.


In this hypothetical world where institutions focus solely on student success, we would have been more sensitive to the needs of African American students and maintained better relationships with those communities so that when the Black Lives Matter movement began, we could have been a supportive partner rather than being perceived as "tokenistic" in our response.


We would have been far more aware of mental health issues, rather than being surprised by the seemingly sudden increase in students' needs for support and services. We would have explored multiple modalities of teaching and learning, so that when a pandemic forced us to go remote, we would have known how to implement such changes (and our improved relationships with students would have facilitated a smoother transition to such settings).


The good news about this prioritization of student success is that it's not too late. In fact, this is the best time to consider such a fundamental shift. Let's return to the start of this post - the issue of increased funding and decreased enrollment. It's a well-known adage in business that it costs ten times more to recruit a new customer than it does to retain an existing one. I'm not sure if we have such figures in higher education, but it almost doesn't matter: as enrollments decline, we don't have as many new "customers" to recruit. Instead, we ought to focus on those we already have. It makes the best financial sense, sure, but it also resonates more with the mission of our institutions and the people who work within them.

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