Is it possible that the reforms taken now to mitigate the pressure of demographic change…might lay the foundation for a stronger future for higher education? -Nathan Grawe, The Agile College
Nathan Grawe recently released The Agile College, the follow up to his seminal 2018 work Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education. In it, he explores how the demographic pullbacks he forecasts for the 2020s might prove to be the impetus for making needed improvements to the business model of higher education, demonstrating how we are an “antifragile” system.
While the decade will bring plenty of disruption, Grawe builds on the antifragile analogy and posits that institutions will come out ahead if they can evolve their strategies to be nimbler and more responsive to student needs and wants. In other words, they need to be agile.
To that end, Grawe outlines half-a-dozen strategies for how schools can approach this decade. Here I want to focus and expand on just one of these strategies: a renewed emphasis on student retention.
No longer a nice-to-have: Retention
One big thing that both Grawe and I agree on is that the next decade demands a strategic enrollment management strategy that stretches from high school recruitment to college graduation and beyond. Unfortunately, most schools still approach recruitment and retention as separate challenges instead of different sides of the same coin. One reason for this may be that higher education as an industry simply has not been stressed in the ways we now anticipate. When prospective students were plentiful and recruitment costs were low, there was a tendency to just bring in more and more first-years and simply hope most eventually graduate.
Schools that double down on recruitment without paying equal attention to retention are undercutting their own progress and potentially setting up more students to fail. This is not a recipe for long-term success in an environment where enrollments are harder and harder to come by. It also does a disservice to the students taking on increasing amounts of debt for the chance at a degree.
If there is a silver lining to demographic pullbacks, it is that motivation and enthusiasm for student success initiatives tends to correlate with the urgency of institutional financial health. In other words, openness to change is improved when changes are no longer nice-to-have but are essential to sustainability. The good news is that it's the students who are the ultimate winners. So how do we get there?
Supporting the integrated student
There are dozens of ideas out there for schools that want to improve student success and close equity gaps. Here I want to focus on just one big challenge facing most colleges and universities: how to better support what Grawe calls the “integrated student.” Students (like all people) are complex individuals with interconnected academic, financial, social, and personal needs. Yet, colleges and universities often treat these facets of the student as separate and distinct challenges, to be handled by disparate offices reporting up through different VPs. Consider, as an example, how rare it is to find academic advising and financial aid in the same reporting line on an org chart, despite their central and inexorably intertwined importance to students’ academic careers. It is difficult to develop an integrated student success strategy, or even basic collaborations, when the requisite support units have different bosses, metrics, missions, and philosophies.
Grawe provides many examples of how the best student success strategies address multiple facets of the student simultaneously:
- On-campus work study is better than an off-campus job because it creates an additional opportunity for advising and mentoring.
- Students who are succeeding academically are more likely to stick around if they also feel a sense of belongingness fostered by faculty and staff.
- Supplemental need-based scholarships are far more effective when combined with counseling and academic coaching.
- Academic planning during orientation works better when advisors make plans that also address students’ accessibility needs and financial circumstances.
- Comprehensive, holistic advising programs find tremendous success by giving students a single point of contact for all their questions and needs.
Many schools would find it difficult to execute on programing that crosses so many different domains, yet this is where we need to go if we want to advance an agile and effective student success strategy. Fortunately, there are steps schools can take right now while waiting for their organizational reporting lines to catch up.
A first step: Coordinate care through technology
Organizational changes are hard work and perhaps not feasible for all institutions to immediately adopt. Fortunately, technology can span the gap. We have long advocated that our partner institutions develop “coordinated care networks” comprised of student support offices linked together using a common Student Success Management System (SSMS). Linked together, these offices can operate from shared student records and refer cases to one another when collaboration is needed. Doing so allows for the development of cross-silo practices like the ones described above.
We’ve found through our partners that advising, academic support, and financial aid form the core of the care network, although many schools go further to add in student affairs, residential life, mental health services, athletics, or any other office that regularly interacts face-to-face with students. When information is shared between support offices, students have better experiences and hidden complications are less likely to fall through the cracks.
The next step: Digital transformation
Coordinated care is a big step in the right direction. Yet, the amount of information shared is still relatively limited, especially when compared to the tremendous amount of data each school has on a student. Consider that the student information system, learning management system, admissions CRM, human resources system, career services tools, and student survey tools all have different pieces of information about the exact same student. No single system can tell you the whole story of that student as each only deals with a part. It is the digital version of the organizational silo problem I described above.
Disparate data inhibits decision making. Systems are not broadly accessible to the people who want to study the data they contain, and even if they were, the researchers would have the impossible task of piecing together a complete picture of each student from a mélange of different code that makes the Tower of Babel seem like the Rosetta Stone. Gathering these data together into a single pool will not only make it easier to understand our student success challenges and opportunities, it will also enable the implementation of the next generation of technologies designed to advance student success.
Embracing agility to support student success
For colleges and universities to be agile in the 2020s, they will need to quickly reframe their student support services to address the student holistically—as a single integrated individual and not merely the sum of half-a-dozen problems.
We need to move beyond the common practice of treating things like academic planning, financial aid, employment, and social belongingness as separate challenges. Instead, we need to start thinking more like students and see all of these as parts of the same big challenge: completing a college degree.
We can begin the work right now by reorienting our organizational structures and practices around the students rather than ourselves. Technology will play an important role. While many campuses have useful systems already in place, there is still plenty of work to be done to create institution-wide data architectures that build more complete pictures of our students. Those schools that take on these changes now will be in a far better position to support the agile thinking needed to survive—and perhaps even thrive—through the next decade.
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