George Mehaffy, the former vice president of academic leadership and change for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, often says that the problem with higher education isn’t a shortage of ideas, it’s is an implementation problem.
I couldn’t agree more. We know what to do. But for reasons we all recognize – institutional inertia, stakeholder resistance, conflicting priorities and limited resources – too many colleges and universities are not implementing the necessary initiatives and innovations.
So let me just list the most important evidence-based solutions to post-graduation retention, completion, and success issues that have proven effective in the broad-access, equity-serving institutions that form the major part of undergraduate students seeking a bachelor’s degree.
These institutions, after all, offer our best chance to address this society’s greatest challenges: income and wealth inequality, stagnating economic mobility, and political polarization.
None of these practices are particularly controversial or costly. All are well within the reach of institutions that have the drive and determination to genuinely improve undergraduate student outcomes.
The student experience
- Redesign new student orientation to ensure all students have a point of contact, freshman schedule, and familiarity with campus services and extracurricular opportunities.
- Place all incoming students in a learning community, cohort program, or interest group with a faculty or staff mentor and access to a dedicated advisor.
- Build creative hubs and spaces in areas of strong student interest, including arts, business, IT, healthcare, pre-law, and public policy, and take action to inspire students undergraduates to take advantage of their services.
- Make belonging and connecting with faculty a high priority on campus by encouraging student-faculty interactions outside of the classroom and extracurricular experiences and student engagement.
- Create a freshman success course to help students explore and succeed in a degree program. This course includes career exploration, academic skills development, and career and financial planning.
- Redesign bottleneck courses.
- Eliminate unnecessary major and degree requirements.
- Engage departments to collaborate to create more cohesive and synergistic degree paths in high-demand areas such as business, computing, engineering, and healthcare.
- Expand opportunities for active and experiential learning, including access to mentored research.
- Ensure the availability of essential classes.
- Adopt a block schedule to make it easier for students to balance work, care, and study.
- Require that all new faculty members receive training and certification in effective teaching methods and mentoring.
- Enable all faculty members to work with an instructional designer to inject more interaction, active learning, and technology-enhanced learning into their courses.
Transfer to community college
- Make the transfer process as seamless as possible by sharing requirements and expectations with community college departments and advisors.
- Process transfer student credit assessments faster.
- Hire a Basic Needs Coordinator to connect students with on-campus and community resources who can address issues related to food, housing, transportation, childcare, and needing assistance. emergency.
- Appoint student success coaches and retention specialists to step in when students are on the wrong track.
- Hire a graduation specialist who is empowered to modify requirements to help students graduate quickly.
- Offer a multi-level academic support system, including peer tutors; study groups; learning centers in areas such as math, science and writing; and additional instruction in high DFW classes.
- Integrate career preparation into the undergraduate experience.
- Make exploration of majors and careers an essential part of first-year courses.
- Increase the number of career-focused workshops and certificate programs in areas such as data analytics and project management.
- Expand access to paid internships.
- Increase opportunities to engage in career-related project-based learning.
Master the costs
- Work with high schools to ensure early college/dual degree programs meet college workload expectations and quality standards.
- Reduce the time it takes to earn a degree by encouraging students to take courses during the summer or during school holidays.
- Use data analytics to monitor course availability, student momentum and progress, retention rates, high DFW classes, equity gaps, and time to graduation.
- Track results, including post-graduation employment and return on investment, by program.
- Regularly review employment trends and institute programs to meet emerging workforce needs and provide training in in-demand skills.
Undoubtedly, your first reaction to this list is to give up and ask how affordable it is. Given that most broad access institutions do not have a secret pool of funds, how can these initiatives be funded?
The response involves rethinking institutional priorities, revamping existing services, and rethinking the responsibilities of existing faculty and staff. Maybe, just maybe, state legislatures and the federal government will put their money where they say it will and put more resources into student success. However, I wouldn’t pin my hopes on what happens.
I recognize that many institutions have already adopted variations of these practices. Admittedly, these ideas are already in the air.
I also understand the obstacles to even implementing these simple ideas. If it were easy, these innovations would already be in place.
This list is also not exhaustive. Especially at equity-serving institutions, large numbers of students swirl: enroll for a semester or even a single course, then exit. Meeting the needs of these students requires a very different approach: one that involves targeted, job-aligned, short-term degree programs that can stack into degrees.
This list is not a panacea either. If there’s anything I’ve learned in my student success roles, it’s that exponential gains in achievement are a pipe dream. The best we can do is work toward incremental gains and granular improvements that, over time, result in greater advancements.
Undoubtedly, individual institutions will inevitably modify the practices I have listed to better suit their unique circumstances and budget.
But I think too often our campuses are flying blind, operating without a well-defined roadmap. Nor do legislatures have a clear idea of what is needed to improve student achievement. These evidence-based practices provide a clear and consistent blueprint for what needs to be done.
Steven Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.