Improving Student Success is Simple. Really.

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

Over the years, I’ve written books and articles, blogs like this, and conducted dozens of workshops and conferences sessions on student success. I’ve sat in a bunch, too. And in every one of them, people want to know one thing: how do I improve student success?

That’s it. That is the one question people want answered.

To me, the answer is always fairly simple, but people think it must be ultra-complicated. I guess it is as complicated as you want to make it. Glass half full or half empty? I think the answer and solution is easier rather than harder.

When I sit in these sessions, I learn some things. I’ve learned that there are no gimmicks. There are no shortcuts. And there are no sure thing solutions that will immediately eradicate your issues. Specifically, here are two things that I am extremely wary of hearing from consultants lips.

It isn’t a technological solution.  

Technology will help, but it isn’t the magnum opus of solutions. It is a tool to help with an issue. There are no buttons to push that will solve your retention and graduation woes. There is simply no app for that, although everyone and their collective dogs wants to put out another app that will transform the student experience. Let me tell you something: students don’t want another app! They want Snapchat and Grubhub. Perhaps Cliff Notes. But if you think students want another app to keep them in touch with the institution, you should talk to students first.

The solution isn’t a formula

There is no formula that says “do this and your problems will go away.” If so, you must think that we would all have that formula, n’est pas? My issue with Strategic Enrollment Management, or SEM, is that everyone is wanting a formulaic advantage in recruitment over their peer institutions. It is an us versus them attitude. Guess what? Everyone has the same formula and it isn’t helping. Everyone wants the consultant to come in, look at their numbers, and tell them what to do. Tell them what percentage of discounts to provide and what targets. This is part of the business, and I’m not saying it isn’t important, but right now there are a lot of institutions that are killing themselves by providing huge tuition discounts in an effort to attract more students. And it isn’t working. All that happens is a growing financial pit at the end of the fiscal year. I’m expecting more schools to close in the next few years or at least be on the brink due to poor financial management. And it is because they either listened to the advice or rejected it.

As I rethought this issue in preparation for this piece, I came up with a few thoughts that may be of assistance. And yes—everything can get nitty-gritty and complex to a degree, no matter how simple I say it is. But the foundational issues of student success remain pretty darn simple.

First, institutions must focus on what is important, meaning only one thing: focus on students. That’s why we are here. That’s it. Even for the Research I institutions out there, it is still about students. Forget this recommendation and you’ll be Chapter 11 faster than you can write a Facebook post. But institutions forget it all the time. Sure, they teach. They do all the things that institutions do. But they do not always put students first. Here is your check sign on this: every time you are in a meeting, ask your inside self, “how does this help students?” This question matters more than anything else I can teach you or provide an app for. Base every decision on the impact on students. Poof. There’s your secret sauce right there. If you are in a meeting and 30 minutes pass and you still haven’t talked about helping students, stop the meeting and find something better to do with your time. Even in financial meetings the focus has to come back to students at some point. By the way, meetings more than 30 minutes are a waste of time. Get your focus on, folks.

Second, punch your weight. Yeah, I know. Everyone is told to punch above their weight, meaning that they should be trying to achieve at the next level and be better. No. Punch your weight and be happy with it. Focus on your institution being as good as it can within its domain. The goal of so many presidents and boards is to ascent to the next level. This smells of mission creep in almost every case. Be great where you are and serve the students you are supposed to serve. And be satisfied. If major change is to happen, it will happen naturally, and sometimes politically. So remember to be the best you can be, which always requires dedication and work. That never goes away. Punching your weight does not mean complacency: it means owning your territory and making it the best place to be for your students and staff. Own it!

And third, develop your resources. And by resources, I mean mostly your people. Sure, improve your infrastructure, yada yada yada. But develop your staff, your alumni, and your students because they are the pillars of your institution in almost every definable manner. Find a way to provide improvement opportunities for everyone you touch. Be the solution place, not the problem place. All I get from my kids’ alma maters is a letter to give them more money. Here’s a tip: stop doing it. I’ll give money to my alma maters (maybe), and my kids can give to theirs, but lay off me to give you any more money. You already own one of my kidneys, for darn sakes. Instead, I want the letter to offer me something I can use to make me or my clan better. And as a faculty member, I want to hear of opportunities that can help me improve my teaching, or better yet—help me be a better person. Build from within your campus as much as you can. Institutions are good because of people and nothing else. It isn’t the fancy buildings and recreation centers—those are funded and built by people. We only improve what we do by improving ourselves, and we make ourselves better by helping those around us. Focus less on the drama and the competitive nature of higher education and focus on improvement.

That’s my quick scribe on this issue. If you took the time to read this and are busy scratching down notes about how you disagree with what I posted, please also take a moment to think about this: “what is it that I am doing today to improve student success?”

Literally, write it down. And take it to your next meeting.

Ps. We still have some spots in our upcoming Retention Certification Institute June 9-11 in Colorado. Check it out.

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