2017 Educause Top 10: #2 Student Success and Completion

Everything is upside down for me this year so I’m not building up to the top ranked for 2017 – I’m going in order, 1-10. My most recent post was here: #1 Information Security. So here we go with my thoughts on #2!


My thoughts on students success and completion. I’m surprised this particular issue isn’t #1. I really am. Any university that doesn’t have student success as its number one priority in 2017 makes me do a double-take. I mean, at the end of the day, that’s our most primary job, correct? To ensure we are developing strong, thoughtful, intelligent, critical thinkers that will within a reasonable amount of time be capable of carrying this country for us, right? No pressure. And since the mantra these days seems to be aligning IT with business objectives, having IT Security in the top spot puts technical in the spotlight instead of the business.

Some background for those of you that don’t know me, I’ve worked in IT leadership within a higher ed trifecta: 2-year state community college, 4-year private Catholic liberal arts in the coveted New England region, and now 4-year state R1 public institution. Before you get too excited, I also spent about 10 years in the business world prior to finding my higher ed niche working for companies like Thomson-Reuters and Dave & Buster’s corporate office.

When I worked at the community college, the student we planned for was what was then considered the nontraditional student: older than recent high school graduate, likely been in the workforce a bit, responsible for a family, and possibly never started a higher education process previously or started and never completed because life happened. We needed to ensure our technologies were competitive and current, as most of our students were already experienced with using current business tools. We needed to find creative ways to attract and retain these adult learners as we clearly couldn’t engage them in the traditional ‘residential’ way. We held no one captive. Many entered needing remediation as it had been years and years since high school. We wrapped these students with care.

When I started working at the private liberal arts university, I asked about remediation and retention. My initial questions awarded me with knowing smiles translating ‘we don’t need to focus on those things’. That changed pretty quickly as the demographic of student changed. Suddenly, traditional students were transitioning to nontraditional status. The numbers of high school graduates on the decline, moms and dads were returning to complete their degrees. How does a traditional residential college respond to that shift?

I’m now at the near ‘love of my life’ university. Yes, I heart it. It’s big. It’s R1. It’s public, so I’m back in my state sweet spot. There are no issues at attracting students, but when I ask about attracting students I get a similar look that I got when asking my previous institution about focus on remediation and retention. And that worries me because no one worries about a deficiency until they have to and often that’s too late. Now we start looking at funding coming from completion rates, graduation rates. This is a shift but likely a smart one for the students. We need to do better. We always need to do better. Continuous improvement is a good thing. And I do believe these completion-based requirements will directly support student success – but how do we get there? Given our goal as universities has quite literally always been student success?

In a nutshell, students are diverse by every definition of the word diverse. And we need to be accommodating and service-obsessed for every single flavor and size (and quick plug: we can accomplish that more efficiently via the use of technology).

We need an educated workforce. We need to deeply understand that our student demographic can change rapidly. We need students to enter our universities and complete a program to assist them in future employability. We need to provide access to current business systems and process while affording them opportunity to develop a comfort level with change and hands-on experience. We need to keep an eye on our students and recognize trouble spots throughout their higher ed career. We need to support a smooth path to completion and be transparent about the impact of changes to majors or mid-degree pivots. We need to develop relationships with students and become a support system for them – face-to-face, social, hybrid, virtual? Yes. It takes creativity.

I’m happy to work for a university where planning has produced eight strategic priorities – all honed to perfection – with the first being a dedication to student success. From a technology perspective we are uniquely qualified to come up with transformative ways to help students track their path, develop cross-campus relationships to ensure the data we collect can in fact be used to aide in smart decision-making to best support our students and make the tech environment engaging for our students while we are fortunate enough to have them on our campus. From a technology perspective, we can pack a punch with impact in student success. If you have ideas, share them. If you see things that need to change, make it happen. Get involved as truly a campus is only as successful as its students, so now’s the time to get engaged.

The completion piece? Yes. Much funding these days is moving in a direction of performance- and completion-based funding. But that discussion tends to send me into a long diatribe of funding woes so, yes, our end goal for the students needs to be helping them traverse the higher ed landscape with the end result being completion.

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