Institutional Change and Student Success Planning

By Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

The challenge that many people have in improving student retention on campus is where and how to start. We have learned over many years that small, independent efforts on campus fail to move the needle, so to speak, on institutional retention, persistence, and graduation rates. They can help with very small pockets of students, but these boutique programs often fade away, especially if originally supported by external funds.

In our work at the Educational Policy Institute and SwailLandis, we have also found that how institutions use data becomes the all-important tool in bringing about change on campus. Even in an area of data-driven decision making, continuous improvement processes, and Six Sigma management, people tend to be wary of data. Perhaps ‘wary’ isn’t the best term: scared might be better. People fit into only a few categories in how they react to data and campus change.

First are the Traditionals. Traditionals are those who will die on the sword of institutional history. The role of history is an important one, but not one that should stand as a barrier to progress. Traditionals are those who are likely to state that “this is the way we have done this for years.” Sometimes they are right; an institution and organization must keep a tab on their history and learn from it. Rarely, however, does it mean things should stay the same as they were. Times change. People change. Demographics change. And higher education continues to evolve in a global market that is hardly reminiscent of half a century ago.

The Traditionals can be very unwilling to look at new technologies or new pedagogies. The old ways have always served the institution well, so their argument is why don’t we just focus on that! They are the ones that focus on senate procedures and the rules of how the institution is run, rather than leveraging the rules to make pronounced change in alignment with the markets. People can be very reluctant to change because change can be unnerving and difficult. The status quo is more comfortable, but only for the short run. At the professorial level, the Traditionals have tenure and care less about what the others may think rather than their own informed proclamations.

The Protectionists are those that fail to believe that the problem lies within their constructs. The problem is everyone else and nothing sticks to themselves. Protectionists look at data and argue that it isn’t representative of their situation. It might be from their university, but it “isn’t them.” It is the Mathematics Department … Engineering … but not us. They push back with data that makes them look a little better, even though the data are cherry picked. Sometimes they argue the methodology to help shield them from the “others.” In a world where everyone is special, they are just a little more special.

We find situations on campus where there are places that are seemingly above it all. For instance, Engineering departments tend to have higher retention and persistence rates than other departments primarily because their admissions criteria are much higher than their campus peers. Thus, they often opt out because their situation is unique. In this case, there is less protectionism than an understanding that they are, in fact, different. Still, others throw up the barriers because each different department sees themselves as unique. They may be unique, but the numbers bear out the reality and most departments on campus are eerily similar.

Finally, the Progressives are those who are looking towards the future and are mindful of trends and data. They are more willing to take a critical look at who they are, where they have been, and where the industry is going. They welcome data from the IR department and use it to help guide planning and development. Their potential negative is that they shut down too much of the institutional history in place of a contention that all matters are future oriented. History does help guide future decisions.

The Progressives incorporate continuous improvement as an ethos rather than a suggestion. They understand that the world is changing, as are their students, and the only way to better serve students and improve retention is to change how things are done.

In a perfect world, an effective institutional planning team has a bit of everything and everyone on it. Those that have great institutional history and memory, aligned with those who are looking towards the future, make for a potentially great alliance. In theory, this provides an opportunity to weave in the past with the future to make appropriate plans for students. The reality is that this can be very tough to do in the real world. Institutions, like many other organizations, are siloed and departmentalized. These multi-million dollar businesses are, to a degree, necessarily compartmentalized in order to get the work done of the university. Most the main areas of the university, including the registrar, student affairs, athletics, financial aid, finance, information technology, institutional advancement, and academic affairs work in separate worlds because their work is distinctly different. They do converge when their work becomes focused on students. Beyond that, there isn’t a lot of interaction.

This makes for difficult work when the focus becomes student success. Half the institution focuses on money and management, while the other focuses on students. Research I institutions also have an additional focus of sponsored research, of course, which has more interaction with the graduate students.

Gaining consensus between these agencies is difficult at best. This is why data becomes such an important lever. Stakeholders have to be on the same page when it comes to what is real on campus. How are students doing on campus with regard to various measures of success? Which groups fair better or worse than others? Which gatekeeper courses are responsible for keeping students out of the graduation sequence? Which instructors have high DFWs, and why? If the planning committees can’t come to terms with which data are to be used and what they mean for the institution, I argue that anything else is, if I dare say, ‘academic.’ It won’t matter because a solid consensus of understanding and definition is pivotal to change.

I hope this gives you something to think about it. Look around your institution. Can you identify the Traditionalists, Protectionists, and the Progressives? Who is pushing the student success agenda on your campus? Who needs to be involved but isn’t? How do you gain alliance with those who think differently but are similarly interested in helping students?

Start thinking about it. Understanding who the players are at your university or college matters. Greatly.

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