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V4I4: Student Success: Higher Education’s Raison Detre

By: Sonny Ramaswamy, President, NWCCU

Student Success: Higher Education’s Raison D’Etre


A ‘Stunning’ Level of Student Disconnection.

The pandemic has worsened youth disconnection, exacerbated inequality, report finds.

These recent headlines regarding the state of higher education are a reminder of the significant, lingering impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on college students. While communities, educational institutions, businesses, and others appear to be moving on to a post-pandemic era, COVID-19 has disrupted learning, impacted the physical and mental wellbeing of students, faculty, and staff, exacerbated inequities, and contributed to unprecedented challenges in higher education.

In a recent report based on a survey undertaken by the Lumina Foundation and Gallup, students cited emotional stress, health concerns, and financial worries as barriers to staying in college during the pandemic. Housing and nutritional insecurity, along with lack of mental healthcare and childcare, are additional challenges that have been exacerbated by the pandemic – indeed, students of color and poor students were the most likely to report that it was challenging to stay on track. The College Board’s comparison of the outcomes amongst the 2018 and 2019 cohorts of students suggests that, because of COVID-19, first-year persistence rates in the 2019 cohort were stable in public four-year sector, declined by 1.7 percent in the private, nonprofit four-year sector, and declined by 5.2 percent in the public two-year sector. The impacts of COVID-19 will likely be felt for several more years, especially for low-income and first-generation students, more of whom also constitute the demographic of two-year colleges. The long-term impacts of COVID-19 on colleges and student outcomes is reminiscent of the lingering symptoms of infection in some people, often referred to as “COVID long-haulers,” including brain fog, fatigue, headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath, and other symptoms.

COVID-19 appears to have direct and indirect impacts on students and their success, particularly students who are poor, first generation, and those who come from underserved communities. While some of the indirect impacts are challenging to understand and address, direct impacts, particularly as they affect student success, are more tractable, and will require a concerted effort by all concerned.

In addition to the long term challenges of the pandemic, is the fraught, contrived political environment in some states that is going to destroy gains made against the legacy of racism and social injustice, and could potentially have long term negative impacts on institutions of higher education, particularly efforts related to addressing equity.

Potentially exacerbating the above challenges, is the situation related to inflation, increasing interest rates, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, all of which are beginning to or will have direct and indirect impacts on institutions of higher education.

The additive long term effects of COVID-19, the political movement against diversity, equity, and inclusion, and the economic fallout of inflation and the war in Ukraine are going to impose significant pressures on colleges and universities as they address issues related to student success and closing equity gaps.

Student success is defined by student learning and achievement that occurs because of the educational programs, experiences, and support offered by the college such that students accomplish their current and future academic, personal, and professional goals. Ensuring student success requires that multiple elements are brought to bear, such as promotion of student engagement, learning, and progress, efforts to boost retention, persistence, completion, or educational attainment, support of academic achievement, advancement, and holistic development, inculcation of core competencies such as communication, critical thinking, and problem solving skills, building career networks, achievement of post-graduation outcomes, and others that may be unique to each student’s particular context, goals, and aspirations. Colleges must also promote student success in the context of closing equity gaps, which we define as the effort to advance fairness and opportunity by providing support to advance achievement and close barriers to academic excellence and success for all students.

As colleges and universities assess approaches to promoting student success, it may be worthwhile to consider the value proposition of higher education, which requires a reimagining and reengineering of higher education, laser-focused on student success and closing equity gaps, while ensuring accountability and transparency. Every individual on campus – students, staff, administrators, and other relevant members of the campus community – has a critical role in ensuring student success, not just faculty, who own the curricula, teach, and have the primary role in ensuring student success. Similarly, as an accreditor, we have a role in ensuring student success, i.e., one of holding institutions accountable, which is articulated in NWCCU’s 2020 Standards for Accreditation and vision to promote student success and closing equity gaps. Our approach is to support evidence- and data-informed, continuous improvement by promoting educational outcomes at institutions. The 2020 Standards focus on inculcating core competencies, aka the non-cognitive, people skills, such as communication, critical thinking, problem solving, digital and information literacy, collaboration, ethics and professionalism, global competency, and others.

In deploying efforts to promote student success and close equity gaps, students cannot be viewed as being monolithic, i.e., a one-size-fits-all approach. We know based on years of data and analysis that each student is unique, particularly those coming from poor and/or underrepresented backgrounds. For example, we use terms such as Latinx/Latino/Latina or Hispanic as a catchall for students from Mexico and Central and South America; we know, however, there are race, ethnicity, and class differences, even amongst students from just within Mexico. Indeed, exceptionally successful institutions create highly personalized education, catering to each student individually by offering tailored advising, classroom and experiential learning, high impact practices, financial and other aid, support services, housing, food, physical and mental healthcare, daycare for students who are parents, and offer other critical support.

Effective instructors know there are as many approaches to promoting student success as there are learning styles. In writing this article, I did a Google search for the term “student success in higher education.” I got over 5 billion hits, along with 5.6 million hits for scholarly articles! In just the first ten pages, I came across popular articles, centers, institutes, workshops, webinars, advertisements for training sessions, books, journal articles, dedicated journal titles, etc., etc., etc., focused on student success, with many offering myriad recipes for success. The articles are an interesting and overwhelming read, some of which I have shared previously with our member institutions. I have also come across efforts at several of our NWCCU member institutions that have had demonstrable success, some of whom we spotlight as winners of the Beacon Award for Excellence in Student Achievement and Success.

Strategies to promote success and close equity gaps include high-impact practices such as use of data-informed predictive analytics, digital tools to promote community and group interactions, digital nudging, social media, focus on educational fundamentals, including personalized education and services, experiential learning, internships, externships, intensive mentoring, and academic coaching. These high-impact practices must also include programs that inculcate enduring and transferable core competencies such as critical thinking, problem solving, oral and written communication skills, technical and digital skills, and ethics and professionalism. In addition to academic support, ensuring success will require that students, particularly from underserved communities and poor students, are provided holistic support services and help with financial aid, just-in-time grants, connections to social networks, food, housing, child- and health-care support, mental health counseling, and advice on transfer and career pathways. For example, the Institute for Higher Education Policy found that approximately 10 percent of students at 200 colleges in 23 states did not receive their degrees, despite completing all of their academic requirements except for trivial ones such as incomplete paperwork or financial hold. This study points out the critical importance of providing holistic student support services to ensure success.

In considering the myriad approaches to promoting student success, one may think also of using the PDSA (Plan-Do-Study-Act) Cycle framework, a systematic process to support continuous improvement. The PDSA Cycle, also called the Deming Cycle, can be repeated as a cycle of continuous learning and improvement via: the Plan step, which involves identifying goals, conceiving underlying theory, defining metrics for success, and operationalizing the plan; the Do step, which involves implementation of the plan; the Study step, where outcomes are monitored for progress, success, potential problems, or areas for improvement; and, the Act step, which integrates the learning generated by the process that may be used as feedback to adjust the goal, change methods, reformulate the theory, or broaden the learning.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about my recipe for student success, which includes focus on intrusive advising, attendance, student behavior, availability of relevant courses and experiential education, use of disaggregated data to inform, financial support, and other strategies.

At NWCCU, we are stepping up efforts in the form of webinars, workshops, and training sessions to bring the best ideas and approaches to support efforts at our institutions to promote student success. We continue to grow these efforts to help create a cadre of experts to work within their institutions to adapt and adopt best practices.

In a previous issue of The Beacon, I invoked the Sonny and Cher song, “the beat goes on,” to describe the almost non-stop discovery of mutations and variants of the SARS-CoV2 virus – the most recent being the Omicron BA.2, BA.3, BA.4, BA.5, and BA.2.12.1 variants – and COVID-19’s continued impacts. Over the next few years, the scientific consensus is that we will see waves of infection caused by the SARS-CoV2 virus, the pandemic will morph into an endemic, which from time to time will result in significant morbidity and mortality, not unlike the situation with the Spanish flu from which today’s seasonal flu virus strains are descended, and which have been causing occasional, significant global morbidity and mortality.

In light of the situation with the SARS-CoV2 virus, the politically fraught environment, and issues related to inflation and the war in Ukraine, colleges will need to be particularly vigilant regarding student success and equity gaps. Institutions will need to invest significant intellectual, financial, human, and infrastructural resources to manage the indirect and direct impacts of these externalities to the health and success of students, requiring thoughtful decisions as we move forward.

In the inimitable words of Mahatma Gandhi, “the future depends on what you do today.


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