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The unique student success challenges faced by small schools

January 29, 2018

The quintessential student success challenge—or at least one that has pervaded higher education news coverage in recent years—is that of scale. With far more students than faculty or staff members, providing personalized attention is difficult, and staff must learn to triage in order to prevent students from slipping through the cracks.

But this narrative doesn’t apply to every school. Small colleges—institutions with fewer than 5,000 students—might not have a scale problem, but they must grapple with how to maximize limited resources to deliver on the promise of a personalized college experience.

To deepen our understanding of the unique (and occasionally overlooked) challenges faced by small schools and how to overcome them, we recently sat down with leaders from two small-enrollment institutions: Farrah Jackson Ward, the associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at Elizabeth City State University, and Nancy Biggio, the associate provost for administration at Samford University.

The expectation of personalized care

Farrah and Nancy both discussed the high expectations that students, parents, and the media place on small institutions. These expectations include smaller class sizes, more accessible instructors, and academic advisors or mentors providing personalized support. As prospective students become more discerning consumers and increasingly see college as an investment, small schools compete for students on the basis of these expectations. As Nancy put it:

“The family and the student make the choice to go to a smaller institution, with the expectation that the institution is going to help get the student across the graduation finish line. [That’s] the expectation: that somebody’s going to care.”

To help deliver on this promise, a partner like EAB can connect small schools with their peers and recommend best practices for obstacles such as restructuring milestone courses and using technology to provide more personalized care to students at scale.

Increasingly limited resources

Many schools face limited resources, but small colleges feel this strain most acutely. Declining numbers of high school graduates, especially in the Midwest and Northeast, mean that enrollment crises are exacerbating already small budgets at many colleges. Nancy said:

“For us, student success is trying to figure out how to use our resources most efficiently. Where do you focus your attention efforts? Where do you have those conversations with students?”

Figuring out where to focus efforts is a challenge at smaller schools without institutional research staff dedicated to collecting data or support staff dedicated to ongoing academic intervention. Using EAB’s predictive analytics has given Samford University access to institution-level insights that would otherwise require a multi-person institutional research team. With EAB’s case management tools, ECSU has been able to break down barriers between offices, allowing staff to work collaboratively and deliver more targeted interventions.

An over-reliance on faculty to deliver advising

Another common reality for small schools is the dependence on faculty to play an extensive (and largely uncompensated) role in student success. Many smaller institutions don’t have the resources to hire professional academic advisors, so it falls to faculty to provide advising—on top of their full plate of teaching, research, and service responsibilities.

At Samford, Nancy has dealt with the challenge of engaging faculty in advising firsthand. She shared:

“For most faculty, advising is a relatively small component of what they do in terms of time. It doesn’t play a role in their promotion and tenure, so the institution itself is not saying to those faculty that [advising] is super important.”

In addition, faculty are often skeptical of new initiatives, especially new technology. If they see advising as secondary to their role, new advising technology may seem superfluous to them. Or, if they’ve seen other technology systems come and go, they might be jaded from the start.

3 strategies to engage faculty in your student success initiatives

Both Nancy and Farrah emphasized the importance of communication to drive adoption of EAB technology. During implementation, Farrah focused on communicating updates at every stage of the process and soliciting feedback from faculty. Ensuring all faculty felt heard was essential. Farrah said:

“Communication is a key thing, specifically with naysayers: allowing them the opportunity to share any concerns they have…and making adjustments based on the feedback.”

Recognizing and responding to the unique challenges of small schools is essential to ensuring student success initiatives work. Our success technology can help scale support, regardless of institution size.

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