The Spring 2016 Ithaka S+R Higher Ed Insights survey on obstacles to innovation that would promote student success identifies four top roadblocks:  Insufficient funding for public institutions; faculty incentives not aligned to teaching and learning; administrative silos; and faculty resistance to change. The top solutions, in turn, are rewarding faculty for innovating in teaching and learning, acquiring better evidence on how to bring initiatives to scale, nurturing better collaboration among PreK-12 systems, community colleges, and universities, and establishing a unit record data system.

These are important findings, but I fear that the survey results might well be misinterpreted, as if the chief barriers to student success were faculty who fail to prioritize student learning outcomes, institutional rankings that fail to emphasize retention and graduation rates, and administrators unwilling to risk upsetting faculty.

The key takeaway from the survey, in my view, is the need for a robust data infrastructure.  We need to find ways to pay for such an infrastructure, train faculty, staff, and campus leadership to make data-informed decisions, break down administrative silos to create an integrated data system, and adopt a unit record system to better understand students’ educational trajectories over time. The institutions that have been most successful in moving the needle on student success have used data to:

  • Identify curricular bottlenecks.
  • Examine instructor variance in grading.
  • Manage course availability and scheduling.
  • Guide financial aid allocations.
  • Detect students at risk of failure and prompt proactive advising.

To be sure, there are many other elements that contribute to student success. Again, I worry that misinterpretations of the survey might divert attention from the factors that make the most difference.  These include:

  • Articulation agreements that assure that transfer students will be able to count courses taken elsewhere towards a degree.
  • A tiered system of student support – including peer advisors, peer tutors, and peer-facilitated study groups —with a special emphasis on courses with high drop-fail-withdraw (DFW) rates.
  • A coordinated approach to advising, coaching, and caretaking that targets those difficult transition points – such as shifts in majors or transferring credit hours – when students’ academic careers too often go off track.
  • Emergency financial aid to ensure that no student drops out due to a lack of money.
  • A curriculum with a clear value proposition.

I can add other elements to the list – a sense of belonging, a one-stop advising and student services center, an early alert system, online course selection and degree auditing tools, transparent, optimized degree pathways, a prescriptive degree plan prior to enrollment, supplemental instruction, on-campus employment, paid internships, and the high impact practices identified by George Kuh.  Neither faculty resistance nor misplaced faculty priorities explain the failure of many institutions to adopt these policies.

The real problem, I think, resides in a paradigm that tends to treat student success apart from curricular pathways that too many students do not find engaging; pedagogies that fail to provide sufficient active or authentic learning experiences; assessments that rely too heavily on high stakes examinations and insufficiently on lower stakes formative assessments; course scheduling and availability that do not meet the needs of students who work or care for family; and the difficulty many students face in obtaining the kinds of support they need.

Faculty can and do play a central role in advancing student success.  Faculty, after all, are responsible for the design of the curriculum.  And no one is better positioned than faculty to track student engagement, monitor student performance, and identify students who have problems that will prevent graduation.  In addition, a significant body of evidence indicates that meaningful connections with faculty inside and outside the classroom contribute significantly to student persistence and completion.  By diagnosing students’ learning problems, providing frequent, constructive feedback, designing engaging, authentic learning experiences, and serving as mentors, faculty member can be the missing link that can bring many more students to academic success.

What, then, can institutions do to eliminate the primary barriers to student success?  My answer is three-fold.  First, institutions need to implement the data infrastructure to drive institutional and departmental decision making and the electronic tools to help students make more informed choices about courses and majors.  Second, institutions need to adopt best practices, not as a grab bag of disconnected initiatives, but as part of a holistic strategy with clear metrics, timetables, and rigorous evaluation and accountability measures.  Third is the need for an institutional guarantee:  That no students will fail to graduate because of a lack of engagement or a sense of disconnection; a small shortfall in money;  the unavailability of essential courses; or the lack of access to a coach, advisor, a peer mentor, or a study group that will provide the academic and non-academic support they need. Such a guarantee sends a powerful message about an institution’s student-centered focus.

Student success is an “all hands on deck” challenge, and senior leadership must engage every constituency – the faculty, the admissions office, the registrar, financial aid, advising, and other student lifecycle services – if this challenge is to be effectively addressed.