The Lever Principle for Student Success

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

Colleges and universities use many varied strategies to reduce turnover and retain students. There exist amply ways to do this across the many divisions and departments, including student and academic services, teaching and learning, financial aid, and others, to encourage student success.

I find that most of the institutions that I work with are cognizant of what should be done to help students. In most cases, they use the appropriate strategies for the appropriate situations. They know the students who need the help and understand how they can help them.

However, sometimes the proverbial wheels fall off the bus in institutions of higher education with regard to supporting students. When a student exhibits some factor that could lead to academic failure or withdrawal, then that represents a lever that is pressed by the student and should start an institutional process to act in accordance with the situation. This is one of the most critical challenges in the retention of college students—ensuring that student get the help they need. Not by chance, but every time a lever is pressed.

A lever is a simple machine. It helps activate a process and provide leverage to lift or engage another piece of the system. In our case, a behavior or action by the student becomes a lever. Per the simple machine proposition, the pressing of the lever should begin a chain of events that happens at the institution, even if the student does not request that sequence. The lever, for us, is important information to let us know that help is needed. We need to notice when levers are pressed and understand what to do when it happens.

Some readers will simply sigh that you can’t get every student the help they need. I understand that. But the system should have pieces in place that automatically fall into place whenever a lever is pressed. Let me provide some examples.

Attendance is a major red flag for student departure. If students aren’t in class, the chance that they can perform poorly, or dropout, increases significantly. The question is: what happens if a student misses class? Does anyone notice? And, if so, does anything happen? The lever, in this case, is the absenteeism. It is the notification that there is a problem. This is a data element, but only if the instructor notices that the student is missing class, especially consecutively. The lever has been pressed: does the instructor notice? Is there a system in place for the instructor to notice? If so, what is the policy for action on behalf of the instructor? Does he ask one of the student’s friends? Does he send an email or text message, or even call? In the case of many absences, does he notify the dean’s office or whomever is the appropriate person? And, if so, what does the dean’s office do? Do they call the student in? Contact parents (which is why signed FERPA waivers are a good idea for colleges)?

The bottom line is that once the action occurs—that is, the lever pressed—what automatically starts the processes to actively do something about the situation? It cannot simply rely on someone “thinking” that they should do something. Something must happen. Automatically.

A second scenario might be when a student fails a quiz, test, or simply is performing poorly. The lever is the academic outcome or behavior. The data are available and show that the student is not performing up to standards. Given that the instructor has this information, what does he or she do about it? The lever has been pressed. The instructor could begin with a discussion with the student about the issue and then provide options to help ameliorate with the academic issues, such as suggesting a visit to the tutoring center, advising on study practices, or linking the student up with another peer in the class. There are many possibilities, but none of them happen if the instructor fails to respond to the lever.

Finally, let us consider the situation when a student is part of a college-based group, like a team or club. If the leader or coach notices that something is awry with the student, then that person is responsible for finding out what is wrong. The lever is the awareness of something wrong, and the action is investigating directly or indirectly to see if there is anything that can be done.

There are countless examples of levers on college campuses. Information is not always just grades and academic outcomes. It is also in the non-cognitive indicators for students. Colleges must understand the levers of college retention and success and then know what to do when pressed.

We are all able to help students at certain times. What we really need to do is ensure that students get assistance in as automatic a method as possible. Often, we find out critical information about students far after the problem began. In some cases, the student has literally left campus by the time we know about it. Therefore, we need to identify the red flags of persistence early and act on them promptly.

How well does your college respond to levers?


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