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Student Success

How Higher Ed CIOs Can Support Student Success Initiatives

People and processes should be at the center of any student success effort. Here's how IT leaders can help steer technology decisions, implement culture change and move the needle on mission-driven goals.    

group of college students

Although many higher education institutions have for years sought to improve student success (increasingly known as "student experience"), the visible struggle of many students during COVID-19 renewed the urgency around institutions getting it right — right now. More schools are professionalizing advising, creating new student success divisions and restructuring student and academic affairs to streamline oversight and operations related to the student experience. Additionally, investments in software for tracking student analytics, campus engagement and student success are on the rise.

Yet student success initiatives are challenging to pull off because they require institutions to collaborate across traditional silos, practice good data governance and implement culture change at multiple levels. And while it's easy to overlook these things and get caught up in shiny new student success technology, efforts will ultimately fall short if institutions ignore the hard work of personal and operational change.

Ask the Right Questions

It's not unusual for campus CIOs to be invited late to the student success conversation, just in time to discuss technology needs and implementation. Nevertheless, IT leaders must slow the institutional roll just long enough to ask the following challenge questions:

  • Have we fully explored and clearly expressed our definition of student success?
  • Do we have all the stakeholders at the table?
  • What people-driven processes (not technological solutions) should be considered or reconsidered in our efforts?
  • How is our dedication to student privacy represented in the plan?
  • How ready are our data operations to support data-informed decision-making?
  • How are we planning to manage change over time?

Start with the End in Mind

Successful initiatives begin with a thoughtful exploration and a clear definition of student success at the institution. Traditionally, student success centered on metrics like student retention, graduation, degree completion times and postgraduation outcomes (if an institution was lucky enough to have the data). However, forward-thinking institutions are taking a more holistic view of success, including social, academic, professional and personal wellness variables. They monitor how well students do the following:

  • Engage in campus activities and leadership opportunities like student organizations, events and elections.
  • Leverage academic support services to develop habits that will optimize their learning.
  • Touch base with their advisers and co-create learning paths that lead to timely degree completion.
  • Explore high-impact practices like externships, study abroad and community engagement.
  • Gain access to housing, food, physical and behavioral health and other essential needs.
  • Make connections between academic and professional goals and grow skillsets that will help them with postgraduation outcomes.

Holistic definitions of student success encourage advisers, faculty and support staff to be proactive and attend to all variables known to impact retention and degree completion without waiting for high-risk academic scenarios (e.g., academic probation, conduct concerns, leave of absences) to occur.

They also allow institutions to put their mission-driven spin on student success. Every institution reports its retention and graduation rates, but a school that prides itself on service learning, study abroad or other high-impact practices will want to optimize its programming and tell those stories, too.

It Takes a Village

The holistic nature of student success and the change management associated with these initiatives require early buy-in across the institution. Representation varies depending on the institution's structure, but it typically includes academic affairs, student affairs, the registrar, institutional research and information technology, along with input from financial aid, career services, admissions and high-impact learning centers. Institutions will also want to consider when to bring student leaders to the table to provide input on definitions for success, current systems gaps, privacy protections and proposed solutions.

Best Practices Before Technology

Student success technologies are complicated and include diversified and overlapping functionality. Campus leaders can become easily distracted and confused when they do not have a clear understanding of the best practices they are trying to facilitate with technology. Therefore, it is essential to identify which student success strategies and people-driven processes fit the institution's goals and gaps before shopping for technology solutions.

Modern approaches to student success focus on student navigation through the institution, reducing frustration and opportunities for them to fall through the cracks. Consider the following trends:

  • 360-degree case management. Taking a cue from other complex institutions like healthcare, some higher education institutions provide students, advisers, faculty and support staff with access to real-time digital records that follow the student through the system. Early alerts, push notifications, role-based access and student-facing task lists are typical features associated with this approach.
  • Academic planning. Degree audit has been around for a long time, but it supports a reactive rather than proactive approach to academic planning. Interactive and customizable academic maps, degree checklists and course pathways better support what-if scenarios than the analog alternatives. Notifications that inform advisers and students of institutional changes that may impact the plan make these activities more effective and help them scale.
  • Unified services. Seamless navigation through the system requires a single point of entry where students can find and engage faculty and support services. Some institutions seek to combine virtual engagement and physical consulting spaces with 360-degree case management to create a one-stop shop. However, for institutions looking to start with something smaller, unified calendaring and scheduling systems also fall into this category.

Data Considerations

While people-driven processes always form the core of student success initiatives, data also plays a significant role in supporting institutional storytelling and continuous improvement. Institutions prepared to leverage student success technologies have strong data governance practices, clear data definitions and a strategy for collecting multi-source data. (To assess your campus' readiness, see the Tambellini Group's Digital Data Governance Adventure.)

Data warehousing solutions that offer a single integration strategy for student success platforms are trending as part of the student success conversation. However, institutions that opt to integrate multiple systems should remember to include the complete student lifecycle from admissions to advancement into their integration plan.

Student privacy and data also go hand in hand. Confirming that technologies are FERPA-ready is not enough. Spend time reviewing vendor and institutional data retention policies and role-based access to information. Talk with students and front-line support about how to interpret analytics and leverage push notifications in ways that are useful rather than invasive.

Not an IT Project

Finally, like many of the technology-intensive implementations seen on campuses today, student success is less about the technology and more about the people and processes that leverage it. Successful student success initiatives require consistent and comprehensive dedication to humanized education — practices that foster engaging and authentic interactions — which will mean sustained change management and educational efforts on some campuses. Make sure to advocate for the time and resources required to ensure buy-in, support professional development, evaluate and change processes and train users on new practices and technology.

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