When I first asked my dad about his college experience, he recalled one of his introductory classes at the University of Wisconsin. He described the large lecture hall full of eager students in his chemistry class, and while he admitted that he doesn’t totally remember most of what he learned in that chemistry class, there was a specific moment during his first day that stuck with him. The professor stood in front of the class and plainly warned everyone, “Take a look to your right, now take a look to your left, and remember those faces. Remember them today because by the end of the semester, one of them won’t be here anymore.”
As I reflect on my professional journey working on technology solutions that help combat the challenges of student success, this exact conversation with my dad has been a huge motivation for what I do and I think back to it almost every day. I keep wondering, how is it that higher ed still hasn’t changed since my dad’s time in college?! (For the record, I’m not calling my dad old… but he was, in fact, attending college a pretty long time ago. And if I’m being honest with myself, it’s also been a while since I was a college student!) And although the latest U.S. Department of Education data gives me a sliver of hope with 4-year private schools seeing graduation rates climb from 65% to 66% and 2-year community colleges increasing retention rates by six points, from 21% to 27% between 2008 and 2017 — these statistics seem far too low to begin with.
So, now I’m going to ask you — how can any of us who work in this wonderful world of higher education sit back and think any of this is okay? How can any of us with children who might be entering this system in the near future believe these statistics are acceptable? And quite frankly, how can any of us, as U.S. citizens and taxpayers, be okay with these outcomes when the U.S. Department of Education has nearly a $70 billion dollar budget? I don’t think we can. I know I can’t.
Stop Talking About Silos. The Real Issues are Much Deeper.
Moreover, studying the commercial landscape to figure out which companies are trying to solve this problem didn’t make me feel any better. The beauty of capitalism is that it empowers people who genuinely want to solve problems, but the problem with capitalism is that solutions are often negatively influenced by the underlying expectation to drive dollars quickly. If you take a look back at the last decade, you’ll find that there are dozens of solutions that have entered the edtech market claiming to solve our nation’s retention problem. Almost every software company claims they have the solution. These companies, TargetX included, offer early alerts to identify students that are struggling before it’s too late, break down data silos, and put students first — they seem to do it all. And yet, we still can’t get graduation rates above 60%.
On the flip side, service-based companies offer success coaches, academic coaches — I mean, you can even outsource areas of campus with the promise of “white glove service!” There are consultants, ranging from self-employed individuals to “Big 4” firms, who arrive on campus telling you exactly what you’re doing wrong with the promise of a resolution. Literally hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in the last decade deploying any number of these solutions... And again, we can’t seem to get graduation rates above 60%.
Roughly seven years ago I started talking to my colleagues who work on college campuses across the country to ask them what’s working and what’s not. Not surprisingly, everyone (myself included) quickly realized that there’s no silver bullet, and it’s equally as challenging to make a meaningful impact. Everyone talks about silos on campus, and yeah, that’s part of it, but the real issues are actually much deeper.
Stacy’s Story: It Only Takes One Person to Make Change on Campus
My friend Stacy works at a small, rural, liberal arts school and has an amazing story about her efforts to make a meaningful impact on her campus. She was brought to the institution and tasked with improving enrollment, and more importantly, improving outcomes. So, what did she do? She started by refusing to take the job unless the president of the university committed to clearing the path for her to do what she needed to do — meaning cabinet-level discussions and true cross-departmental accountability.
Once she had that commitment (and accepted the job!), Stacy got to work building relationships and consensus across campus. Keep in mind, she didn’t know exactly what she needed to do to create change on campus, but she knew that everybody needed to be bought in for it to matter. Stacy spent her first few months simply getting to know the people that worked around her by asking what they do. This is how she began setting the table for change.
From there, she began mapping out the student journey at her university. The vast majority of her students were traditional-age so she started with this population, but as the campus expanded their graduate programs, she was quick to do another review there. In my experience, understanding the student journey is the only way to start making a real impact on student success. If you can’t identify a student’s journey, how can you anticipate when and where they’re going to encounter problems?
Stacy implemented cross-functional groups using the relationships she had built early on to diagram how the institution operated. Businesspeople like to call this exercise process mapping. The results? Well, there are far too many to cover in one blog post, but one small change she implemented that made a big impact for the student was aligning financial aid and bursar hours and calendars. And what was the ultimate outcome of compounded small changes? In that first year she blew their retention goals out of the water.
So, What Can Higher Ed Learn from Stacy’s Efforts on Campus?
While I still can’t understand why it took over half a century for this crisis to receive the attention it deserves, I’m optimistic that our national dialogue is heading in the right direction, and there is now a clear focus on improving outcomes. But clearly, as with anything, change takes time.
So, what can we take from Stacy’s story? Change can truly begin anywhere, but it requires focus and attention from a dedicated catalyst. The key takeaway here is that if you are passionate about your students and are motivated by their success, you can be that catalyst for your institution. What’s stopping you from beginning to map the student journey next week? And a reminder from Stacy: you don’t need to have all the questions asked to start answering them.
As you identify issues, focus your efforts to solving them. Don’t let perfection be an obstacle to progress — if Stacy has taught me anything it’s that incremental improvements can lead to fundamental change. And wait until I share the results she’s seeing today in my next post… to be continued!