As part of my career in admissions and enrollment, I’ve attended well over 100 campus open houses. Picture cars full of prospective students, groggy from an early morning drive, accompanied by attentive parents armed with guidebook information, entering performance halls where they are dazzled by the newest marketing video, formally addressed by administrators with important titles, and encouraged to metaphorically “kick the tires” during their day on campus.
I have presented at more than half of these events, usually leading off with my favorite analogy. I ask how many people have seen one of those great adventure movies, where someone is trying to jump from the hood of a moving car onto a moving train? (Lots of hands up) I compare the student to the person trying to make the jump, propelled by the momentum of the classes they have taken, their extracurricular activities, and their life experiences. I suggest that colleges are like the trains, and students are seeking to make the leap onto one that is going in the right direction at a safe speed to get them where they need to go.
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We owe our students a well-researched and thoughtful plan for how we will engage them in their own success.
Over the last year or so, however, I have changed my presentation. Instead of dutifully describing our admissions calendar, deadlines, and other criteria, I’ve started giving a talk I call “Making College Worth It.” First, I reassure families that we all have the same goals. We want students to be successful, happy, and not living in their parents’ basements. Then I point out that, thanks to the Gallup-Purdue Index, we already know the experiences that are most critical for college students — the things that correlate with graduation and going on to healthy and happy lives. It isn’t rocket science. For students, the six key experiences are having a professor who makes them excited to learn, having a professor who cares about them as a person, having an encouraging mentor, working on a long-term project, doing an internship, and being “extremely active” in extracurriculars.
Families need this pep talk now more than ever. Gallup poll results released in July indicate that only 36 percent of Americans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education. That is down from 48 percent in 2018 and 57 percent in 2015. This is a sharp decline but should not be altogether surprising when you consider some recent data. As Mark Kantrowitz, a financial-aid expert, sketched out in Forbes two years ago: “Less than half of college students graduate on time” and “more than one million students drop out of college every year.” As he puts it, “college is generally a good investment, but only if you graduate.” The public-policy professor David L. Kirp wrote in The Chronicle a few years back, “The fact that 40 percent of college freshmen never make it to commencement is higher education’s dirty little secret, a dereliction of duty that has gotten too little public attention.”
For years colleges have been testing out different approaches to bolster student success, with data-informed tactics that are nearly as laser-focused and sophisticated as those used in admissions. Institutions have been hiring vice presidents for student success, using historical data to identify at-risk students before they start at-risk behavior, deploying student-success applications and chatbots to nudge students in the right direction, and identifying success markers for students to hit along their journey. At the same time, many are beginning to realize that old-fashioned solutions can drive real improvement along these metrics.
Take athletic teams, for example, which provide students an extra layer of support via a coaching staff, which helps them navigate college life. That extra support assists students with transitions and provides the college a built-in “early warning” system to identify problems while they can still be managed. With a positive team experience, athletes have a sense of belonging, a group identity, and a shared vision of future success. The results are clear. Division I athlete-graduation rates hit 90 percent last year. Division II athletes graduated at an eight percentage-point higher rate than their non-athletic peers, and Division III players outperformed their peers by three percentage points.
Or consider a program like the Posse Foundation, which allows member colleges to select a group of 10 or more students per year from the same hometown, on the simple idea that students who enroll together as a “posse” will succeed together. The foundation identifies mostly low-income students, a typically high-risk group, provides them with mentoring, and helps arrange scholarships. Its students achieve a 90-percent six-year graduation rate.
Another simple, well-executed idea is the Indiana Commission on Higher Education’s “Scholar Coaching Initiative.” This mentoring program, implemented by Ivy Tech Community College and Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, led to double-digit improvements in retention rates at both institutions in just two years by focusing on helping students balance their personal lives with their academic workload.
At the University of Lynchburg, where I work, we are about to embark on a year of experimentation to test the theory that simple interventions can increase retention. Our team is focusing on three aspects, derived from our read of the Gallup-Purdue results. To put it simply, we believe students need someone behind them, something to belong to, and something to look forward to. Our vice president for student development talks about this as the three P’s of connection — connecting people to people, connecting people to a passion, and connecting people to a pathway or purpose.
To accomplish this, we’ve developed an implementation plan to engage our faculty and staff and to create an internal marketing campaign to change the cultural norms for our students. This plan includes:
- Enlisting faculty and staff to search for students who need mentoring, and to look for opportunities to ask students three questions: Who on campus has your back? What activity are you involved in? What do you hope for in the future?
- Incorporating versions of these questions in surveys, retention reminders, and in the normal check-in processes in student-service offices.
- Creating internal-marketing campaigns of posters and T-shirts based around the question, “Who’s got your back?”
- Designing a simple questionnaire that students can use to think through what their values are for each of the major areas of their lives.
- Sharing information about these three keys to success with parents both before and after students enroll.
- Adjusting orientation-session topics and training orientation leaders to guide new students toward these success strategies.
- Providing opportunities for students to learn about and engage earlier with campus activities.
While colleges have a long way to go to reclaim some of the 40 percent of our customers that don’t get a desired outcome, there probably is no one single silver bullet. Instead, there are solutions that are authentic to each campus, some of which are based on simple concepts. We owe our students a well-researched and thoughtful plan for how we will engage them in their own success. We need to tell them how to be successful, and then we need to inspire our whole communities to support them to do it. The skills we teach them today — like finding mentors, engaging in a meaningful activity, and having a clear vision for the future — will not only help them graduate, but will set them up for success in life after they leave our campuses.