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Insight Paper

The Student Success Strategy Playbook

14 recommendations to improve student outcomes and ensure financial sustainability across the next decade

American higher education has enjoyed a multidecade-long enrollment expansion that may soon come to an end. American birth rates that stagnated in the 2000s fell precipitously during the Great Recession and have yet to recover. While the full impact of demographic contraction remains to be seen, smart colleges and universities are taking measures now to prepare a retention and student success strategy for the future.

We appropriately think about student attrition as a manifestation of unfulfilled ambitions, yet we rarely consider the financial impact to the school.

Forecasted Change in College-Going High School Grads from 2019-2029 (Adapted from Grawe (2018)) Circles represent the US Census Metropolitan Statistical Areas for the corresponding cities. Some states with smaller populations have been merged to create a sufficient sample size for forecasting

The recommendations in this report aim to help you and your leadership team reshape your student success strategy in preparation for the anticipated enrollment downturn of the 2020s. What follows is summative insight and guidance from hundreds of EAB researchers and in-field practitioners gathered over the last decade. Thriving in the years to come will require institutions to reshape their enrollment strategies, and to bring student retention back into this conversation.

Thinking about students as consumers can serve as a useful and provocative teaching metaphor. Are there business practices around maintaining customer relationships that can be applied to student retention? How can they be applied in an ethical way that works in the best interest of the students we serve? What new investments would we make to achieve our enrollment, retention, and completion goals? Through this metaphor, we seek only to push your thinking in new ways and spark productive debate.

Start Reading the Playbook


A Future-Facing Student Success Strategy

Part 1: Student Success Management

In the first part of the playbook, we look at how student success strategy and policy can value the student as a consumer in the same way that a business might value high-end recurring clients. This section invites readers to ask, “If higher education is a product and students are its consumers, are we doing everything we can to bring them back for another year?”

In this section, we will walk through how to:

  • Eliminate registration and financial barriers
  • Support students with technology-enabled advising
  • Build belonging and academic confidence

Jump to Part 1


Part 2: Delivering a return on education

In the second part of the playbook, we explore student success practices and policies that honor the students as consumers by respecting the cost they pay for our product and increasing the value they get in return. This section seeks to reduce unnecessary costs and increase the postgraduate value of a degree.

In this section, we will walk through how to:

  • Reduce the number of nonproductive credits
  • Enhance the value of the curriculum

Jump to Part 2

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