In a 1912 essay, Sigmund Freud cited Napoleon as the source of his most famous phrase, “anatomy is destiny.” That much-criticized saying embodied the father of psychoanalysis’s belief in the primacy of biology and anatomical differences in determining psychosexual development, interpersonal relationships and gender identity, behavior and roles.
Today, that view is widely dismissed as overly simplistic and deterministic. But a variant, that demography is destiny, is implicitly held across the higher education landscape.
That demographic trends in birth rates and immigration patterns will shape the size and composition of the student body. A decline in the number of high school graduates will inevitably lead to decreased enrollment, while an increase in nontraditional students—first-gen college students, commuter students, older students, students of color, low-income students, international students, working adults and family caregivers—will require institutions to adapt their services and programs to meet varied needs.
Yes, demography matters. Demographic changes are already bringing issues of access and equity in higher education to the forefront. There is a growing need to address disparities in educational preparation and attainment among different demographic groups.
Shifts in the demographic makeup of the student body also have significant financial implications for institutions, affecting tuition revenue, funding models and the allocation of resources. A shrinking pool of traditional college-age students who can pay full freight has led to increased competition for enrollment, impacting tuition-driven institutions particularly hard.
In addition, this society’s evolving demographics has had an influence on the types of skills and qualifications that the workforce requires, forcing campuses to adjust their curricula and program offerings to prepare students for the changing job market.
Understanding demographic trends is, of course, crucial for colleges’ strategic planning and policy development. Campuses must innovate and adapt to remain sustainable and relevant, by developing online programs, international recruitment strategies and industry partnerships.
But demography isn’t destiny.
There’s a tendency, at many broad-access campuses, to blame demography for their low graduation rates. If their completion rates are miserable, it’s due to factors outside the campus’s control: Their students’ academic unpreparedness. Their financial challenges. The work hours and personal and family responsibilities that lead many to enroll part-time. Or their high transfer rates.
Financial pressures, commute time, work obligations, family issues—they all matter. But it turns out that internal obstacles are what truly spell the difference between academic success and failure. Scheduling. Services. Various campus hassles. Access to help. Belonging and connection. Classroom engagement.
In other words, the keys to student success are well within an institution’s control.
In fact, at the institution where I was working, there was no doubt that the campus underperformed relative to its “inputs”: the students’ high school GPAs, test scores and other measures of academic preparedness.
Sure, the students faced many financial and personal obstacles. Many students need childcare and family services and assistance with housing, food and transportation. But it turned out that the biggest variables were institutional.
In that student success role, the institutional barriers to student success quickly became obvious.
- Unavailability of gen ed, gateway and other required courses
- Wasted credit hours
- Poor student performance in gateway classes
- Bottleneck courses with very high DFW rates and significant performance gaps
- Overly complicated degree requirements
- Rejected transfer credits
- Few safety nets for students who don’t engage academically or socially or who are discouraged by poor service levels and communication.
Nor did it take long to uncover the red flags that would allow me to identify the students most at risk of dropping out—and who would most benefit from intervention and support.
Among entering freshmen, these were students:
- Who perform poorly during their first semester
- Who weren’t receiving financial aid
- Whose precollege record was much lower than their classmates’
- Whose schedule wasn’t organized around a time block
- Who commuted more than most other students
- Who delayed choice of a major or shifted majors after their fourth semester
- Who retook a course in order to improve their GPA
Among transfer students, these were students:
- Who were taking less than a 12-hour course load
- Who were not receiving financial aid
- Who were substantially older than their peers
- Who had a prolonged time gap between their previous institution and their new institution
- Who failed to complete all their first-semester classes
- Who came from outside one of the standard feeder community colleges
The undergraduates were quite cognizant about the institutional hurdles they confronted:
- A lack of understanding of graduation requirements
- Difficulty accessing an adviser or a financial aid specialist
- Incorrect advice
- No one to review their course schedule, approve their course selections or evaluate their application for transfer credits in a timely manner
- A lack of connection with faculty
- Grading variance even within the same sections of a course
Above all, the surveys, questionnaires and focus groups revealed striking low levels of student satisfaction. They complained about siloed student services and wanted more streamlined procedures. The students wanted improvements in course registration, instructional effectiveness and student-faculty interactions. They reported a lack of connection with faculty and staff. Many also expressed a desire for more engaging, enriched and challenging learning experiences. Above all, they wanted the campus to demonstrate more concern for them as individuals—all wholly reasonable concerns that needed to be addressed.
It didn’t take long to figure out what needed to happen. At a minimum:
- The campus needed a more robust new-student orientation that did a much better job of introducing both freshmen and transfer students to campus support services.
- Every entering student needed a four-year degree plan and a point of contact.
- Academic and nonacademic success skills and major and career exploration needed to be embedded in the first-year curriculum.
- Entering undergrads needed to be encouraged to take courses in their prospective major as soon as possible.
- Steps needed to be taken to minimize course withdrawals and incompletes.
- Research and internship opportunities needed to be expanded.
- Departments needed to better align course offerings with student demand and redesign their course schedules around morning, afternoon and evening time blocks.
- Departments needed to review degree requirements to eliminate bottlenecks.
- Very high DFW courses (with over 25 percent rates of withdrawals, failures or very low grades and very substantial performance gaps) needed to be redesigned.
- The campus needed to combat attrition after the first year.
All easier said than done.
One idea that struck me as eminently doable—transforming the required first-year freshman composition courses into thematically or career-aligned learning communities, including academic success skills training and major and career exploration—wasn’t something that could be implemented in a year or even two.
Getting departments to address high-DFW classes was, not surprisingly, a big political challenge, even when the answers required only limited change on the part of the faculty—for example, by funding supplemental instruction sections organized study groups and tutoring sessions.
Some widely touted panaceas—like behavioral nudges and peer advising—didn’t work especially well. For one thing, most instructors didn’t (or wouldn’t) identify students who were at risk of failure in a timely manner. Sending at-risk students automated messages had a very limited impact. Interventions had to be far more proactive and forceful if students were to take advantage of the services the campus offered. It also turned out that while peer advisers could offer moral support, they weren’t especially effective at guiding students who were off track or in trouble.
Block scheduling, too, remained an unrealized dream. The first baby step—getting the campus to agree to common start times for courses—took over a year to realize.
Then there was the challenge of encouraging more active, experiential teaching and learning. Even when we were able to offer modest fellowships to participate in instructional design workshops, the opportunity was largely taken up by the usual suspects.
But some innovations were possible:
- Increasing credit accumulation, by instituting more four-credit-hour classes; expanding the number of weekend, summer, intersession and online courses; and encouraging and incentivizing a full-course load (for example, through a “15 to finish” campaign).
- Expanding course availability by teaching at unconventional hours, including on weekends, and offering more online classes.
- Measuring unmet student class demand and responding by opening additional sections.
- Encouraging departments to adopt block scheduling.
- Using technology to help students track their progress toward a degree.
- Reducing the number of students who repeat classes.
- Assisting students who wished to change majors.
- Reaching out to students who fail to register for classes and maintaining contact with those who stop out.
- Informing deans and department chairs about curricular bottlenecks and high-DFW classes.
- Intervening when students reach 90 credit hours to ensure timely graduation.
- Reviewing faculty workloads.
- Making it possible for transfer students to register for classes earlier.
- Doing more to connect students with faculty (through a “take your professor to lunch” program), to help students connect with their future identity (through expanded pre-professional programs), and to help students better navigate the institution’s support services.
The most difficult challenge is also the most consequential: to encourage a campus culture that is truly learner and learning focused. That will require institutions to incentivize faculty to think of themselves in a new way: as learning architects, mentors and crucial contributors to their students’ overall success, shaping an educational experience that prepares students for both academic achievement and future career success.
Here’s my advice:
- Create a sense of urgency. Prompt a campus conversation around various areas of concern, including student dissatisfaction and institutional barriers to student success.
- Incentivize academic innovation. Recognize and reward faculty members who engage in curricular and instructional redesign and who implement programs that involve experiential learning: scaled mentored research, field experiences, community service and more.
- Prioritize students’ academic and nonacademic success. Expand professional development offerings in innovative teaching methods, mentorship skills and career advising. Redefine evaluation criteria to value and reward mentorship, advising and the integration of career preparation into academic instruction. Encourage interdisciplinary collaboration to design integrative courses and programs that combine academic rigor with practical skills and pre-professional preparation. Establish formal mentorship programs that pair faculty with students and provide structure and resources to support these relationships. Create learning communities, pre-professional cohorts and open honors programs to a much wider range of students, including transfer students. Foster a culture of care that values holistic student development and well-being where students feel supported academically and personally.
Of course, student success isn’t as easy as one, two, three. It’s an incremental, iterative process. So be happy with small successes and recognize that student success is everyone’s responsibility, but especially the responsibility of faculty as instructors, curriculum designers and academic policymakers.