Delivering on the Promise: Removing Barriers to Student Success

In this issue:

In a recent interview with Academic Impressions, Dennis Pruitt, vice president for student affairs at the University of South Carolina, suggested that one of the most critical factors in ensuring student success is ensuring momentum toward the degree:

"Historically, many have assumed that if students get over their homesickness, if they have a good affinity group, if they feel good on campus, they'll persist. But the two factors that truly help students persist are academic progress toward a degree (having a goal and gaining momentum toward it) and maintaining maximum eligibility for the maximum amount of financial aid (to ensure non-interruption in their courses)."
Dennis Pruitt, U of South Carolina

This suggests that more than anything else, supporting student success is about empowering students to build momentum toward their goals, and removing barriers to their momentum. To learn more, we turned to Kevin Pollock, the president of St. Clair County Community College, and Don Hossler, professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Indiana University Bloomington and the executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Removing Road Bumps: Do Your Policies and Processes Get in the Way of Student Success?

Your institution may still face a higher-than-necessary attrition rate if your academic policies and procedures offer too many "road bumps" that delay or impede your students' progress.

Or, as Kevin Pollock remarks in a pointed reminder, "Any time your students have to walk across campus unnecessarily from one office to another in trying to resolve an issue is an opportunity for them to walk to their car and leave."

Here are a few examples of policies and procedures worth reviewing:

  • Grade recalculation -- does your institution average the two grades when a student retakes a course, or do you keep the first grade on the transcript (so that it remains a part of the academic record) but use only the second grade in calculating cumulative GPA (incentivizing and rewarding improved academic performance)?
  • Adding a major or minor -- how many steps does this process take, and are they outlined clearly for the student?
  • Course scheduling -- review the schedule from a student's point of view, and avoid scheduling bloopers that delay students' momentum (Pollock cites one case in which three non-sequential prerequisite courses were required, and all three were offered on the same evening, making it impossible for the students to take more than one of the prerequisites that term)
  • Financial aid -- how clearly are changes in the process communicated to students? Do students have access to their aid before they need to buy textbooks and other materials?

How do you identify the stumbling blocks at your own institution?

Pollock suggests that a key task of your student success task force or retention committee is walking through each step of the student's experience on your campus, from admission on, to take an in-depth look at where students run into bottlenecks or delays in service, or where there might be missed opportunities to better support their academic success. Pollock recommends trying an array of data collection methods from surveys to focus groups to "mystery shopper" exercises (in which a member of the task force walks through a process in person to get a first-hand perspective of its efficiency).

"How does a student register for classes?" Pollock remarks. "Is the process productive or not, and if not, how can you fix it? When is financial aid released, and how do students get their information? What about your bookstore -- are all the items there on time, and have students received their financial aid in time to buy them before classes start?" Often, Pollock suggests, walking through the processes and procedures of the student experience will reveal where a policy or a process proves a hindrance, rather than a help, to students.

Building that Momentum: Academic Advising

It's likely that academic advising will be near the top of your student success task force's checklist of areas to audit and review. If your advisers are faculty, then advising is an opportunity to intensify faculty-student interaction (one of NSSE's key benchmarks), and in any case, early and ongoing advising can help your students set goals and develop a curricular road map to achieve their goals.

Few things will slow a student's momentum toward a degree and obstruct your institution's ability to deliver on a promised academic experience as much as inefficient or inaccurate advising will. At many institutions, there are significant barriers to providing students with high-quality advising. For example:

  • Students may be assigned an adviser too late -- perhaps several semesters in
  • Faculty advisers may not be up-to-date on changes to the course catalog, or their knowledge of requirements might be restricted to their discipline
  • Faculty advisers may not have training in advisement
  • Faculty may be evaluated and rewarded in ways that do not incentivize advising (or it may be low on a list of priorities in an already overburdened faculty workload), or they may be evaluated by the number of students they advise rather than by the quality of the advising or by having met specified outcomes

According to a study funded by the College Board, "How Colleges Organize Themselves to Increase Student Persistence: Four-Year Institutions" (April 2009), 70 percent of four-year institutions offer minimal or no incentives for full-time faculty to serve as academic advisers.

Interviewing Lucie Lapovsky, president of Lapovsky Consulting and past president of Mercy College; Dennis Pruitt, vice president for student affairs at the University of South Carolina; and Mike Theall, an associate professor at Youngstown State University and a leading thinker on faculty evaluation, we identified three approaches to consider as you look to improve advising at your institution:

  • Adopt a differentiated staffing model for managing faculty involvement in advising; for example, on a rolling basis, assign faculty to a short-term, increased advising load in return for a reduced teaching load, and ensure that the performance criteria for faculty evaluation are adjusted to incentivize rather than penalize involvement
  • Hire full-time advisers (non-faculty) who are trained in academic advising and can take on a heavier advising load
  • Empower students to take more ownership over their own advisement, by structuring advising to aid them in developing individualized learning paths (an adviser can assist a student not only in thinking through the courses needed to achieve degree and career goals, but also in making intentional choices about the co-curricular and extracurricular activities that will support their goal) -- and by offering students the ability to conduct a degree audit online to monitor their own progress

From Ideas to Action: Forming the Student Success Task Force

To take your efforts to the next level, you need a student success task force or retention committee that:

  • Includes the right people, including representation from enrollment management, student affairs, faculty, the business office, and academic advising
  • Has access to discretionary funding, for piloting key initiatives
  • Has clearly defined strategies for mining institutional data and seeking student input (whether through regular surveys, focus groups, or an open forum)
  • Sets manageable, measurable goals

"Student success is everybody's job -- it's the reason you work at the institution. The task force needs to include representatives from all the major functions on campus that interact regularly with students."
Kevin Pollock, St. Clair County Community College

It is especially important, Don Hossler suggests, that your retention coordinator or committee chair be intentionally selected. "It's important to identify a well-respected, knowledgeable insider," Hossler notes. "And if this position comes with limited access to financial resources, then you need an individual who has the organizational and political savvy to navigate the campus landscape."

An alternative approach to heading up any type of institutional planning task force -- suggested by Pat Sanaghan, president of the Sanaghan Group, in his book Collaborative Strategic Planning in Higher Education (NACUBO, 2009) -- would be to identify co-chairs in a move to foster further collaboration between the academic and administrative sides of the institution. (To learn more about Sanaghan's approach, which is designed for an institution-wide strategic planning effort but includes many points that are adaptable to a smaller task force, read our article "Planning and Budgeting in a Low-Trust Environment.")

Finally, to build momentum and ensure that plans actually get implemented, Pollock recommends identifying specific, actionable steps that can be measured and evaluated along the way:

  • Identify top concerns of the student body
  • Complete focus groups on a certain issue
  • Identify three processes to update based on focus groups

"You can change processes and policies and pilot new efforts, in small pieces, along the way," Pollock notes. "Little changes add up."