George Mehaffy, the former vice president for academic leadership and change for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, often says that higher education’s problem isn’t a shortage of ideas, it’s an implementation problem.
I couldn’t agree more. We know what to do. But for reasons that we all recognize—institutional inertia, stakeholder resistance, conflicting priorities and constrained resources—all too many colleges and universities fail to institute the necessary initiatives and innovations.
So let me simply list the most important evidence-based solutions to the problems of retention, completion and postgraduation success that have been shown to work at the broad-access, equity-serving institutions that educate the bulk of today’s bachelor’s degree–seeking undergraduates.
These institutions, after all, offer our best chance for addressing this society’s biggest challenges: inequalities of income and wealth, stagnant economic mobility, and political polarization.
None of these practices is particularly controversial or expensive. All are well within the capabilities of institutions that have the will and determination to truly improve undergraduate outcomes.
The Student Experience
- Redesign the new student orientation to ensure that all students have a point of contact, a first-year schedule and familiarity with campus services and extracurricular opportunities.
- Place all entering students in a learning community, a cohort program or an interest group with a faculty or staff mentor and access to a dedicated adviser.
- Create hubs and maker spaces in areas of high student interest, including the arts, business, computer science, health care and prelaw and public policy and take steps to inspire undergraduates to take advantage of their services.
- Make belonging and connection to faculty a high campus priority by incentivizing outside-of-class student-faculty interactions and co-curricular and student engagement experiences.
- Create a first-year student 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 extraneous major and degree requirements.
- Incentive departments to collaborate to create more coherent, synergistic degree pathways in high-demand fields such as business, computer science, engineering and health care.
- Expand active and experiential learning opportunities, including access to mentored research.
- Ensure the availability of essential classes.
- Adopt block scheduling to make it easier for students to balance work, caregiving and academics.
- Require all new faculty members to receive training and certification in effective teaching methods and mentoring.
- Make it possible for all faculty members to work with an instructional designer to inject more interaction, active learning and technology-enhanced learning into their courses.
Community College Transfer
- Make the transfer process as seamless as possible by sharing requirements and expectations with community college departments and advisers.
- Process transfer students’ transfer credit evaluations more quickly.
- Hire a basic needs coordinator to connect students with both on-campus and community resources that can address issues involving food, housing, transportation, childcare and the need for emergency aid.
- Appoint student success coaches and retention specialists to intervene when students are off track.
- Hire a graduation specialist who is empowered to modify requirements to help students graduate expeditiously.
- Offer a tiered system of academic support including peer tutors; study groups; learning centers in such areas as math, science and writing; and supplemental instruction in high-DFW classes.
- Embed career preparation across the undergraduate experience.
- Make major and career exploration an essential element in first-year courses.
- Increase the number of career-aligned workshops and certificate programs in areas such as data analysis and project management.
- Expand access to paid internships.
- Enhance opportunities to engage in career-related project-based learning.
- Work with high schools to ensure that early-college/dual-degree programs meet college workload expectations and standards of quality.
- Reduce time to degree by incentivizing course taking during the summer or academic breaks.
- Use data analytics to monitor course availability, student momentum and progress, retention rates, high-DFW classes, equity gaps, and time to degree.
- Track outcomes, including postgraduation employment and return on investment, by program.
- Regularly scan employment trends and institute programming to meet emerging workforce needs and provide training in in-demand skills.
No doubt, your first reaction to this list is to throw up your hands and ask how it is possibly affordable. Since most broad-access institutions have no secret stash of funds, how can these initiatives be paid for?
The answer involves rethinking institutional priorities, reorganizing existing services and reimagining the responsibilities of existing faculty and staff. Maybe, just maybe, state legislatures and the federal government will put their money where their mouths are and devote more resources to student success. However, I wouldn’t pin my hopes on this happening.
I recognize that many institutions have already adopted variations on these practices. Certainly, these ideas are already in the air.
I also well understand the barriers to implementing even these straightforward ideas. If this were easy, these innovations would already be in place.
Nor is this list comprehensive. Especially at equity-serving institutions, large numbers of students swirl: dropping in for a semester or even a single course, then exiting. Meeting these students’ needs requires a very different approach: one that involves targeted, job-aligned short-term credential programs that can stack into degrees.
Neither is this list a panacea. If there’s anything I’ve learned in my student success roles, it’s that exponential gains in outcomes are a chimera. The best we can do is to work toward incremental gains and granular improvements that, over time, add up to bigger advances.
Without question, individual institutions will inevitably modify the practices that I have listed to better meet their unique circumstances and budget.
But I think it’s the case that too often, our campuses fly blind, operating without a well-defined road map. Nor do legislatures have a clear sense of what’s required to enhance student success. These evidence-based practices do provide a clear, coherent action plan for what needs to be done.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.