Learn how to identify and remove institutional barriers to college completion and student success through data-driven interventions and systemic change to institutional processes and structures.
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What does Student Success mean in 2021?
In the fall of 2020, Dr. Tim Renick from Georgia State University (GSU) was announced as the founding Executive Director of the National Institute for Student Success (NISS), the first organization of its kind.
Until recently, "student success" was not a common term used in higher education. Things are changing though. Over the past six years, more than 500 institutions have gone to Georgia State University to learn more about GSU's approach to student success. EDUCAUSE interprets student success by answering three big questions on how to define, measure and structure the concept.
In this section, Dr. Renick discusses what student success means in 2021.
What is Student Success?
Student success aims to encourage student engagement, learning and progress toward the student's own goals through cross-functional leadership and strategic application of technology.
What is the National Institute for Student Success?
The National Institute for Student Success is dedicated to helping institutions understand their own complicity in college dropout rates. What Dr. Renick and his team found at Georgia State during the past decade is that, in many cases, the reason students drop out of college is not necessarily because their K-12 programs didn't prepare them, but that the institutions have created administrative obstacles to their progression and graduation.
The NISS is laser-focused on helping campuses look at their own administrative processes and improve them in such a way they can make transformative differences.
— Dr. Tim Renick, Executive Director of the National Institute for Student Success
The NISS is a response to the overwhelming interest in GSU's programs to increase graduation rates and improve student success. It's an opportunity for them to share what they're doing on their quest to impact graduation rates not only at Georgia State, but on a national level. The organization is a gesture toward serving the colleges and universities interested in learning about what GSU is doing.
The NISS builds up consulting teams and trains practitioners to dedicate a large amount of time to helping other institutions implement the programs and techniques.
The groundwork Dr. Renick laid for GSU & NISS
Dr. Renick started leading Georgia State's success programs in 2008. At that time, "student success" was not a term commonly used in higher education. He and his team set out to improve graduation rates at Georgia State by concentrating on specific data-based approaches. Because resources were slim, they had to use data to identify where the university caused the most difficulty for students. They did this by tracking students with predictive analytics using risk-based factors. Now, GSU has logged more than 100,000 times when they have approached students after noticing that something in the data was amiss.
By taking control and supporting students better through administrative processes — including advisement, financial aid, communication systems, registration systems and so on — Dr. Renick discovered GSU could make a transformative difference. He said, "If we're the problem, then we can presumably resolve it."
GSU's path to innovating Student Success at a national level
Dr. Renick says GSU's national role in student success wasn't necessarily intentional. But they started getting attention with their student success initiative, because they were doing something important. They were able to improve graduation rates, not by changing the students, but by improving internal and administrative processes.
GSU was consolidated by the State of Georgia with Perimeter College less than five years ago. At that time, the graduation rate for white students was 2.5X higher than black students. Since the consolidation, GSU has incrementally integrated their signature student success programs, and they've seen graduation rates triple. Today, white students and black students graduate at exactly the same rate.
Dr. Renick's message began to resonate with educators across the country when they heard how much success GSU was having with their students. When the student success initiative at GSU also caused them to eliminate equity gaps, more heads turned, and major interest was sparked.
Educators have a calling to higher education because of the mission it serves: to teach and help mold the lives of students. Dr. Renick started to see a trickle effect where institutions would call and ask about some changes GSU made, like using predictive analytics, and ask to come see this technology at work. The trickle soon turned into GSU hosting other schools every other day. The university then hired someone to be a full-time coordinator of the program to allow other institutions to send teams to spend time with the Georgia State faculty.
By the end of last year, GSU had as many as 80–90 people visiting the campus at a time during visits to learn about the programs the institution had implemented.
How is Student Success measured?
Retention and graduation are commonly seen as the hallmarks of student success. In fact, these are critical metrics for universities to collect, observe and analyze — especially when you take into consideration the fact that 40 percent of students do not graduate. But, when you measure only graduation and retention, you lose the chance to learn whether what you're doing to support student success is working or not and make the required changes to get it on track.
Source: National Student Clearinghouse / Credit: Koko Nakajima, NPR
Retention and graduation rates can't provide us with information about why and where students fall off the path to complete their degree. For this reason, these metrics are referred to as lagging indicators. Rather than looking back at those lagging indicators, educators should start identifying leading indicators. A starting point is to look at leading indicators like completing gateway courses, timely registration and participation in advising appointments.
When trying to measure student success, institutions should also seek to examine and analyze it from the perspective of individual students by trying to find scalable approaches to rate student progress against their own goals and find systems to deliver personalized support to achieve those goals.
New challenges developed during the lockdown
EAB explored new challenges faced by over 3,000 student success leaders in their annual CONNECTED conference last December. When the pandemic hit, restaurants and businesses shut down leaving many college-aged workers without jobs. When 38% of drop-outs cite financial pressure as the main reason for leaving, students struggled to pay their tuition more than ever. Isolation was another challenge addressed at the conference, for both students and staff. Measuring the effects of the new normal is a test of adaptability and innovation that many student success leaders are still trying to solve.
Though student success is still a relatively new concept, it's easy to see it's beginning to take the higher education world by storm. We can't wait to see what the future of education holds with this new student-centered approach.
How to launch a Student Success initiative at your university with Dr. Tim Renick from GSU
The path to college graduation is becoming increasingly uncertain. Deloitte reports, "Nearly one-third of undergraduates leave after their first year, and many require six years to complete their studies." One way to help retain students is a student success initiative. We are seeing more and more colleges hop on board the student success train as they start rolling out student success initiative programs of their own.
Dr. Tim Renick, Vice President of Student Success at Georgia State University and the first Executive Director for the National Institute for Student Success (NISS), recently worked to implement a student success initiative at Georgia State University (GSU).
Through diagnostic analysis and practitioner-led coaching, the NISS helps colleges and universities identify and remove institutional barriers to college completion through data-driven interventions and systemic change to institutional processes and structures.
In this section, we outline Dr. Renick's best strategies for launching a student success initiative.
The No. 1 strategy for launching a Student Success initiative
The most encouraging thing about Georgia State's approach to student success is that it's very logical and intuitive. It doesn't require a set number of steps to follow, or the need for the greatest experts in the field to be working 24/7 around the clock.
The best strategy is to deliver personalized support to students at scale. We've known for generations that individual education works. When you think about some of the nation's top schools, like Harvard, Georgetown, and Yale — they all have one thing in common: a low staff to student ratio, which allows the students to get quite a bit of personalized attention.
— Dr. Tim Renick, Executive Director of the National Institute for Student Success
This strategy is obviously going to be challenging for larger institutions like Georgia State because it's very difficult at-cost to deliver that kind of personalized attention to students. So, larger institutions should find ways to leverage technology and data to personalize the student experience and to give students support on a day-to-day basis, providing students with the information they need in a timely way. This helps ensure students don't learn about a mistake after the fact and helps them make better decisions.
Part of the approach is to eliminate the thinking that delivering personalized support at large institutions is impossible. Remember, Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither will your student success initiative. Dr. Renick says that Georgia State had a ratio of 12,000 students per one advisor just more than a decade ago.
So, Georgia State has come a long way by systematically using their data to implement better support for students, and so can you.
The positive ROI of Student Success initiatives
Did you know that student success initiatives offer a positive return on investment? These programs more than pay for themselves because you also retain dollars and resources when you retain students. For every one percent GSU improves its retention rate, it's worth about $3.3 million per year in additional tuition and fee revenues. The more effective your initiative, the more resources it provides for improvement the following year.
Georgia State was able to implement a leading student success initiative, not from a large endowment or donation, but by moving the needle and reinvesting some of the resources the following year into additional supports for students. These changes won't happen overnight, but continuing to invest in student success will pay off tremendously in the long term.
Take Small Steps to Build Success
Your starting point for implementing student success initiatives is ensuring you have foundations in place. The first things an institution must begin assessing and implementing are:
1. Have leadership in place and on the same page. If you have good intentions, but your president and provost are on completely different wavelengths in terms of direction and priorities, you don't have a foundation to build upon. So, you must first ensure leadership is not only present, but that everybody agrees with the direction the campus is going and is willing to do their part to get it there.
2. Have some fundamental data in place. This doesn't mean you need to have advanced, predictive analytics in place already. In fact, NISS can help campuses take their data and use it to develop predictive analytics that help package students more efficiently for institutional aid and other programs. You can't get to the endpoint where data is working for you without first having fundamental data in place.
Having a strong foundation helps campuses use the kind of tools that will be most effective. Building that foundation with everyone on the same page is often the hardest and most expensive aspect. It requires getting a large group of experienced people to approach things differently.
Therefore, leadership is important. The goal is to create a culture where people recognize that immediate sacrifices result in much greater rewards for both students and the institution.
Overcoming the challenges of "getting the house in order"
Starting a student success initiative can seem overwhelming. That's why Dr. Renick recommends taking it step-by-step. The first step is to "get the house in order" and build the foundation for a powerful program. To build your foundation, you must:
1. Collect data and perform a careful analysis of the impact of the program. Data is a language that can't be denied. The facts are there, and the data serves as evidence that something works — or doesn't. It's an integral part of helping get everyone on board and convincing faculty and other employees to rethink current processes. We know that faculty members can be a tough audience. They are smart and experienced. Data is an excellent way to help persuade them about the benefits of a student success initiative because the numbers don't lie.
Leading with the evidence (data) is a great way to convince faculty members to rethink how they see and analyze things. Data also provides a less accusatory way to bring about change. Instead of saying, "You're not doing a good job," you can say, "We've made some interesting discoveries while reviewing our data, and would love your help to understand what it means." Then you create a partnership where everyone is a part of the conversation. Data-driven decision-making is a team effort.
Graduate Outcomes data for Georgia State University's Accounting majors provides evidence of program success with alumni earning high salaries at top companies.
2. Don't start with other people. Start by implementing changes yourself. Start by changing and optimizing administrative processes, rather than pointing fingers at faculty behaviors. Start within your own administrative processes to determine what you should change at that level instead of running directly to faculty. Start with changing the way you advise and support students, for example. When you start by focusing on administrative policies, you make a public statement that you aren't pointing fingers at anyone; you recognize these problems are pervasive throughout the university.
3. Most faculty and staff are attracted to institutions, not because of the pay but because they really want to make a difference. Unfortunately, the big bureaucracy of higher education can sometimes kill those aspirations. So, documenting that these programs work, even on a small-scale initially, can make a difference. This can reignite the fire in educators who were once determined to make a difference and spark some real change. It can start a domino effect that leads people to think "if I also change what I do, maybe I can make a difference as well."
Showing the whole campus that you are willing to be innovative, self-critical, and use data systematically, can really make a difference. It can light a fire that crosses campus and benefits tens of thousands of students.
Key data-driven initiatives to launch a Student Success program
Institutions should remember that sometimes the data that's the most impactful is also the simplest data. The hurdle to overcome is using the data in a timely, systematic fashion. For example, one of the most telling early indicators of a student who is going to struggle is a student who drops or withdraws from a course in the middle of a semester. Don't wait six months or more to find out why a student dropped a class, ask them right away. That allows you to intervene immediately and resolve problems that could become much deeper for the student. These kinds of interventions save the student time, money, and undue stress, and lead to higher student success.
We understand that all the data out there can be overwhelming. The good news is, you don't need massive amounts of data to improve student success. What you do need is to understand which data are important and then use the data in a timely and systematic fashion.
How to use alumni outcomes to help current students
Having better student, after-graduation data is another chance to provide students with the right, timely information in order for them to be able to make good decisions.
When Georgia State conducted traditional alumni surveys, they would get a 3 percent response rate. So, as much as they wanted to tell current students about life after college, they struggled to collect the necessary data to provide these insights.
Recently, the school implemented tools from Steppingblocks to help identify around 180,000 alumni and what they've done since graduation. They gave that information to current students immediately. Instead of waiting until the students are seniors and can't change their majors, now students have access to this data during all four years and can consult it as needed. The sooner you can get this data to students, the better. If you wait until they are seniors, it's likely too late for them to make the appropriate changes.
Georgia State University populates their student-facing, College to Career degree program pages with Steppingblocks Graduate Outcomes data.
Georgia State found that informing students in a more constructive way about career outcomes after graduation changes their behavior while they are students. Since the data has been available, Georgia State has seen a drop in students changing majors after their first year because they now have a better understanding of the major they've chosen right from the beginning, thanks to the data. When students don't change their majors as frequently, more students graduate with less debt, fewer students run out of financial aid before they finish their degree program, and it means fewer students drop out.
Data is an important step to equip students with better and more timely information so they can make more informed decisions. The benefits go beyond just student outcomes. The benefits include the alumni affairs office that can take that better data and more effectively interact with alumni, which also encourages more alumni donations.
Provide your students with better information, and they're much more likely to feel informed and therefore, empowered, which leads them to make better decisions and thus, leads to higher student success rates and greater retention.
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