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3 takeaways from our gathering of 900 student success leaders

November 25, 2019

Earlier this month, EAB hosted the largest convening of student success leaders in higher education. More than 900 partners came together for three days of research presentations, workshops, and networking at CONNECTED19.

But for my team and the partners we work closely with, it feels less more like a family reunion than a conference. It was not uncommon to hear squeals of excitement as colleagues and old friends reunited, joked with each other, and swapped stories. I can genuinely say CONNECTED is my favorite day of the year. (Favorite work day, let’s not get crazy.)

Attendees at CONNECTED19 smiling

Since CONNECTED19 came to an end, I’ve been reflecting on what we learned this year. Three major themes stood out to me:

1. There is progress to celebrate

To kick off the first full day of the conference, Melanie Bowen shared her experience with the book Factfulness by Hans Rosling, which explores how gaps in human thinking shape our ability to perceive facts. Due to our “negativity instinct,” we are more likely to perceive things as worse than they actually are, ignoring (or never seeing) good news. In higher education, for example, the share of adults in the U.S. with bachelor’s degrees is higher than it’s ever been, increasing by 640% in the last 75 years.


Increase in the number of U.S. adults with bachelor's degrees in the last 75 years
Increase in the number of U.S. adults with bachelor’s degrees in the last 75 years

This is not to say that everything is rosy—far from it. But it is worth reflecting on the positive progress we have made collectively, so that we can double down on what has worked and refocus on remaining gaps.

Across CONNECTED19, we took time to celebrate the impact individual schools have had on their student outcomes. We recognized five Collaborative-wide Award winners and featured 75+ partner institutions as case studies, best practices, and tiles on our Impact Wall. I was excited and proud of the work all of these schools have done, not just the ones that I’ve worked with closely (though I will say, go Monarchs!)

As part of an effort to codify our progress, we compiled a new Student Success Playbook. This e-book collects our most effective strategies for improving student persistence in one place, so you too can make the progress you want to celebrate.

2. We have a lot more work to do

As we learned from Dr. Shaun Harper’s stunning keynote address, we have a long way to go before we will close the opportunity and attainment gaps in higher education. Doing this work requires having difficult conversations in which we acknowledge race and racism. It also requires college administrators to reflect on their own gaps when it comes to knowledge of race and equity issues, and in many cases, some “remediation” is sorely needed.

Dr. Shaun Harper presenting at CONNECTED19

One way for colleges and universities to improve equity as well as other important metrics is to benchmark their current state and create an action plan for the future. A big focus of CONNECTED19 was building the skills and technological capabilities to effectively measure student success.

Erin McDougal hosted an interactive workshop that taught participants how to evaluate their student success initiatives. The key is to approach planning with an “evaluation mindset” from the beginning. What populations will you focus on, and what is the right comparison group? What are your process metrics? What is your Theory of Change? These questions are just as critical to answer as “how” you’ll launch your next initiative.

3. Keep students at the center

If we want to continue to make progress, we need to be mindful of how students experience college, especially students from underrepresented backgrounds. Several sessions at CONNECTED flipped the script on student success: Dismissing traditional ways of viewing the student journey (often the administrator’s perspective) in favor of the student’s perspective.

We heard from a panel of students in the Unconquered Scholars program at Florida State University, who shared their experiences and what they wished college leaders knew. In particular, the Scholars want their educators to recognize their strengths, like their incredible resilience and determination, which can often be overlooked in light of their “struggles.”

To tie all of this together, Annie Yi and Natalia Alvarez Diaz presented research on “Understanding and Designing Interventions for Pivotal Moments.” Pivotal Moments are turning points in a student’s college journey that can mean the difference between success and failure. By reflecting on the importance of moments, why students struggle to navigate them, and what works to elevate them—schools can improve student success. To identify these key junctures, we invited attendees to reflect on their own Pivotal Moments, across their educational and career experiences.

See pivotal moments from student success leaders’ own college journeys

Like any family, the Student Success Collaborative has work to do. But our annual reunion allows us to celebrate the incredible progress we’ve made in serving students—and set our aim on what we’ll accomplish in the coming year.

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