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Technology for Student Support Abounds, but Implementation Remains an Obstacle

Some 200 companies sell technologies and services intended to help colleges and universities with their student support work, which has become a $560 million business. Yet colleges and universities still have obstacles to overcome in implementing and integrating student support systems, according to a study undertaken by Tyton Partners. The consulting firm recently shared its findings in two reports, one focused on understanding how student support tech is being used in higher education and the other offering a profile of the "supplier landscape." The work encompassed responses from a survey of 3,300 institutional stakeholders at almost 1,300 institutions, as well as 30-plus interviews with decision-makers and technology providers.

Broad forms of student support products on the market include tech for academic advising, teaching, career services, financial aid and literacy and student life. Those student success offerings fall into 14 product types, but academic advising dominates, making up two-thirds of the market and cutting across 12 of the 14 categories. Within the advising category, the software that addresses academic planning and audit is the only flavor of product that has been adopted by a majority of institutions; everything else could be considered niche.

According to the reports' authors, institutions with integrated student supports, as a whole, show higher rates of retention and completion. Why? Because there are "clearer lines of responsibility and stronger communications channels" among the various stakeholders. At the same time, lack of integration of the various student support systems appears to be a major obstacle to success.

The share of colleges and universities that are adopting or beginning the adoption of guided pathways, by type of institution.

The share of colleges and universities that are adopting or beginning the adoption of guided pathways, by type of institution. Source: "Driving Toward a Degree 2019," from Tyton Partners

Take the example of the adoption of guided pathways, which the survey found was on the rise. Since 2017, the rate of adoption for these "program maps" that align with students' career goals has grown across all types of institutions by 9 percent. The growth rate was reported as 11 percentage points within four-year public schools; nine points at four-year privates and eight points for two-year colleges.

These aren't necessarily a "yellow brick road to student success," — yet — the report noted; completion and retention rates for institutions reporting adoption of guided pathways were lower than those not reporting adoption of this approach.

As the authors explained, many of the guided pathways "are still in the early stages of implementation"; "significant progress toward the improvement of retention and completion rates requires a sustained commitment to execution."

Also, it's a complicated matter to set up effective pathways. As one of the reports explained, there are two "crucial elements": understanding what the student's remedial needs are and then aligning institutional capacities to address those needs. That process requires the use of three different tools: performance measurement and management, to understand what's having an impact; curriculum and assessment management, to stay on top of course quality and student engagement and measure academic progress; and academic planning and audit, to reduce the likelihood of a student taking "meandering degree paths."

And currently those institutions implementing guided pathways "are no more integrated in regard to student supports than institutions that are not." Nor have they set up better lines of responsibility for student support-related work or "stronger communication channels between stakeholders."

The study was supported by a number of organizations and was underwritten by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Both reports are available with registration through the Tyton Partners website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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