The steps that institutions need to enhance student success are not a secret. The broad access campuses that have moved the needle on retention and graduation rates have advanced along similar paths. Here are the eight pillars of student success.
1. Enhanced onboarding
The advice you received as a child is correct: First impressions are lasting impressions. How first-time and transfer students are introduced to a campus has a lasting impact on their subsequent success. Successful institutions introduce students to a dedicated advisor. They inform students about campus services and opportunities. They emphasize the institution’s commitment to providing students with the support and services they need to succeed. And they offer pre-enrollment bridge programs and boot camps to ensure that students succeed in their first-year classes.
2. A robust first-year experience
If students are to succeed, they need to get off to a positive start. Meta Majors – an integrated first-year experience built around clusters of classes with a common focus – offer new students a supportive community, close relationships with instructors and classmates, dedicated advisors, and a host of engaging high impact experiences. The strongest Meta Majors provide training in time management and study skills and help students explore possible majors and careers.
3. Data-informed proactive advising
A campus’ use of data need not be overly complex. Early alerts notify advisors when students are in trouble, prompted, for example, by low scores on early assignments, or enrollment in an unusually small number of courses. The students can be nudged to take advantage of learning centers, tutoring, study groups, and supplemental instruction. At the same time, identification of courses with very high DFW classes can prompt course redesign.
4. Early exposure to career planning
Most students come to college to enter a fulfilling career. Institutions need to provide students, early in their college experience, with relevant labor market data, including job sectors that are growing, starting salaries, high demand skills, and educational requirements for particular jobs. Schools also need to inform students about the career opportunities associated with each major and introduce them to alumni who graduated with particular majors. In addition, schools might offer skills workshops to help students develop high demand skills and provide pre-professional advising and activities to better prepare them for advanced education or the job market.
5. Expanded access to experiential learning activities
There is no doubt that the best way to build students’ credentials or to help them make an informed choice about a future career is to Increase their opportunities to take part in experiential learning opportunities. Internships, mentored research, practicums and field-based learning experiences, service learning, and study abroad all help students clarify their educational and career goals and build their skills.
6. Enhanced student support services
Most students drop out not for academic reasons, but because of life challenges. To help students meet these challenges, successful campuses offer emergency financial aid and assistance with housing, transportation, food, and childcare.
7. Fostering a success-oriented mindset and sense of belonging
Students who drop out often feel unwelcome on campus and incapable of meeting a campus' academic expectations. In contrast, successful students have a sense of connection to faculty, classmates, and advisors, and a positive mindset about their ability to achieve their goals. There are simple steps that successful institutions take. They encourage students to take part in campus activities and to join student interest groups. These schools foster stronger student-faculty ties, often by instituting “take your professor to lunch” programs or integrating co-curricular activities (like visits to a museum or a performance) into courses.
8. Removing institutional obstacles to success
Excessively complicated and seemingly irrelevant degree requirements, roadblock courses, and unavailable or inconvenient classes can serve as serious hurdles to student success. Majors with steep barriers to entry can demoralize students. So, too, can a refusal to accept credits from feeder institutions. Sometimes, these obstacles make sense on pedagogical grounds. But when they don’t, change needs to take place. The most successful institutions have expanded course availability, often through online courses. They have simplified degree requirements and taken steps to address curricular roadblocks. They have created a campus culture geared toward success, both academic and career success.
To be sure, we must not minimize other factors that can promote or hinder student success. The classroom experience is, of course, especially important. Students who succeed feel that their classes are relevant and engaging and that their professors genuinely care about their learning and their success. Active learning is valuable not only because it can contribute significantly to improved skills development and better command of the material, but because it engages students in their own learning.
Rates of student success are not preordained by students’ economic status or educational background. I am struck by the stark differences in graduation rates among institutions with fairly similar student demographics. Take the example, large urban public 4-year institutions with significant numbers of commuter students. Some – like Central Florida, San Diego State, and Temple, have unusually high 6-year graduation rates for first-time, full-time students (70 percent plus), while others -- like Florida International, Georgia State, San Jose State, University of Illinois Chicago, and University of North Carolina Charlotte – are mid-range (in the 50 plus percent range). Still others are doing worse -- with Memphis, Portland State, UMass Boston, UW Milwaukee, and Wayne State -- having 6-year graduation rates in the 40 percent range.
No doubt, some of the factors are location specific, having to do with local labor markets. But this comparison should certainly prompt us to focus on the campus policies that can make a big difference in student outcomes.
Steven Mintz is senior advisor to the President of Hunter College for student success and strategic initiatives.