6 months ago, academic plans were a great idea. Now? They’re a necessity

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6 months ago, academic plans were a great idea. Now? They’re a necessity

Imagine you are a college student. Generally you know what steps you need to complete to graduate—coursework, internships, exams, and so on. Without any significant curveballs, you have every reason to believe you’ll get across the finish line on time.

But then, everything changes—the pandemic upends your life, along with everyone else’s. Now where there once was a clear path forward looms a barrier of uncertainty: Will I be able to take the classes I need? Will they be in person, or virtual? Will I still be able to graduate on time? Where can I find support and guidance amid all this change?

As we begin a semester where many, if not all, courses are likely to be held online, it’s essential that students can easily access the answers they need to build and adjust their academic plans to stay on track toward timely graduation. When students can’t access campus support staff or advisors in person, finding these answers is more challenging than ever, but having a tool to guide them as they adapt their academic plans to the new reality can greatly help.

An academic plan is a student’s intended course schedule for an upcoming semester or for multiple semesters. An academic planning platform should provide guardrails and guidance based on students’ major and degree requirements, future course availability, and efficiency in time to degree.

Measuring the impact of an academic plan

To understand the value of an academic plan for students as well as institutions, we analyzed credit hour and registration data from 12 schools who use the Academic Planning module in EAB’s Student Success Management System. This analysis showed that students who make a formal plan attempt an average of 2.68 more credit hours each term than their peers who do not complete a plan (the reported average difference at each school ranged from .79 to 4.59 credits). Extrapolating across eight semesters for a standard four-year bachelor’s program, this adds up to more than 21 credits across a student’s education journey. That’s 21 credits that students who didn’t complete a plan would be missing, leaving them a semester or more behind on their path to graduation.

This credit gap doesn’t just impact the students themselves—it also makes a significant difference in institutional success. The potential tuition revenue for those missing credit hours varied greatly at the 12 partner institutions I studied (based on their tuition and enrollment) but averaged over $194,000 per semester.

Students who complete an academic plan are more likely to reenroll as well. Students at these partner institutions who completed an academic plan registered for the next semester at a 27.77 percentage-point higher rate than peers without an academic plan. The preserved tuition and fee revenue from these retained students amounted to $281,000 on average across the 12 institutions.

The 12 EAB partner institutions studied include 11 community and technical colleges and one public university. These institutions range in undergraduate enrollment size from 2,800 to 51,800 students. All credit hour enrollment and registration rate data are for the Spring 2020 semester.

It’s important to note that some of the trends suggested here are likely a result of correlation rather than causation, with self-selection contributing to these outcomes. A student who successfully takes steps to complete an academic plan may be more goal-oriented and organized to begin with—leading them to opt into a higher credit load than their peers or making them more likely to return the next semester.

Even in the best of times, having students complete an academic plan seems like an obvious strategy for improving outcomes and supporting timely graduation. But when the world turns upside down, as it did this past spring? Then taking this step to safeguard their success becomes imperative.

The future of academic planning is virtual

The data confirms what many progressive institutions already know—academic plans lead to stronger students outcomes. But how can schools ensure that every student creates a plan? Relying on pen and paper and in-person advising appointments is no longer realistic because of concerns around equity of access, a challenge which was been hugely exacerbated by the pandemic.

As students continue to cope with unpredictable shifts in their immediate circumstances, having a reliable way to account for these changes in their longer-term academic plans is invaluable. A tool like this is particularly vital for historically underserved students, including those from low-income families as well as students of color, whose educational outcomes are more likely to be disproportionately harmed by the pandemic. Higher ed leaders have an obligation to eliminate de facto barriers to completion, including outdated and ineffective academic planning processes.

To ensure the benefits of an academic plan are available to all students, especially in these uncertain times, institutions need to give students a plan-building platform that meets four key student needs:

  • Accessible anywhere at any time, on phone or computer, because campuses may have to pivot back and forth between remote and in-person operations at a moment’s notice.
  • Adaptable over time as students’ goals, needs, availability, and circumstances shift. In a time of pandemic and recession, flexibility is a boon to students facing life-altering changes on multiple fronts.
  • Guiding as students work to understand and account for program requirements and personal interests. With automated guiderails, common planning errors and scheduling inefficiencies are flagged and avoided before time and tuition money go to waste.
  • Collaborative between students and their advisors, fostering meaningful feedback and support even when in-person interactions are impossible. Keep the planning conversation going outside the bounds of semesterly advising appointments.

Institutions that rely on out-of-date academic planning processes can better serve their students by leveraging modern tools. Elizabeth City State University (ECSU), a historically black public university with 1,695 students, struggled to meet students’ evolving needs in their previous academic planning process. Students met with advisors in person and wrote pen-and-paper plans. There was no standard infrastructure for collaboration between students and advisors and no way to execute long-term planning.

To address this, ECSU partnered with Navigate to launch the collaborative Academic Planning module. Students now complete a plan as a required assignment in their freshman seminar, with the template pre-populating based on intended major. Students meet with their advisor to review these plans and continue collaborating and iterating on them in Navigate’s shared digital workspace. As students make changes based on their preferences and goals, the system’s automatic guardrails identify common errors and inefficiencies. Meanwhile, advisors can make adjustments and leave comments before approving students’ plans.

The pandemic has further emphasized the value of these plans for all students as they account for the long-term impact this disruption will have on their path to timely graduation. As ECSU’s Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, Farrah Jackson Ward, likes to say, “Student success is a marathon, not a sprint.”

As we reflect on a turbulent six months and try to prepare for an opaque tomorrow, many of us are still adjusting to the long-term impact this pandemic has had on our best-laid plans. The lesson here—the value of informed and flexible planning—is one that current students can take to heart as they work toward academic and postgraduate success.

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