Over the past decade, colleges and universities have faced increasing pressure to improve degree completion rates and demonstrate their value to students. At the same time, evidence has accumulated about efficacy of a number of structural and pedagogical changes institutions can make to help students succeed. Tactics including remedial course redesign, proactive advising and coaching, active learning pedagogies incorporating technology, and guided pathways now have a solid research base. Yet despite this great motivation and the availability of evidence-supported practices, relatively few higher education institutions have achieved rapid gains in student success.

The challenge, for many institutions, is not what to do—or why—but rather how to do it.

In Institutional Transformation for Student Success: Lessons Learned from Ithaka S+R’s Case Studies, Jessie Brown and I draw on evidence from Ithaka S+R’s Case Studies in Educational Transformation to identify and discuss four key strategies that institutions have employed to develop, scale, and sustain changes that improve student success. These “strategic essentials” are:

  • Committing to a student-centered mission and strategic plan. It is critically important for senior leaders to articulate student success as an institutional priority, and to demonstrate a commitment to the institution’s stated goals and strategies through multiple channels of communication, both public and internal. These goals and strategic plans should be developed through a process that meaningfully engages multiple stakeholders throughout the institution.
  • Collaborating around student success. Higher education institutions have numerous veto points, and are embedded in an ecosystem that shapes and is shaped by their policies and practices. Achieving improvement at scale requires meaningful, substantive collaboration among internal and external stakeholders around goals, design, planning, sharing practices, and iteration, as well as processes to coordinate activities across people and functions.
  • Aligning structures, resource allocation, and personnel to the strategic plan. Existing institutional bureaucracy, budget priorities, and faculty and staff incentives and training generally serve as barriers to student-focused improvement. Shifting to a student-success orientation requires realigning administrative structures to break down silos and remove unnecessary complications for students; funding allocation processes that explicitly reinforce student success goals; and hiring, promotion, and faculty development processes that align faculty and staff incentives and expectations with student success goals.
  • Using data to continuously improve. Data can be a powerful tool for change; but to take advantage of the insights that data analysis can offer, institutions must have a process for interpreting the results and using them to make adjustments that impact students. Tracking and reporting progress on metrics meant to test the success of improvement strategies will invest the broader community in this process, as well as inform revision of the strategies or their implementation. At a more tactical level, empowering a dedicated, cross-functional team to take a data-driven, systematic approach to solving problems that interfere with student success can enable an institution to accumulate a series of small improvements into broad impacts.

Supported by the literature on organizational change and management for continuous improvement, the strategic essentials not only serve as transitional strategies, but also position institutions to improve student outcomes iteratively over time.

While we expect that these high-level explanations and concrete examples will be useful to those undertaking their own efforts to improve student success, we recognize that many institutional leaders will want to understand the extent to which their own institutions’ organizational structure and culture currently align with the strategic essentials, and how they can achieve better alignment. To that end, we are developing an assessment process—the Educational Transformation Assessment, or ETA—that evaluates an institution’s current practices against a rubric focused on the strategic essentials and several key programmatic features. The ETA transforms the strategic essentials from abstract models to ideas in action.

Much like the strategic essentials themselves, our theory of change is dynamic and evolving. We invite readers to share their own examples of the strategic essentials, other lessons they would draw from our case studies, and to continue the discussion on the best ways to bring student success improvement to scale.