Human beings have a natural tendency to behave in a way that maximizes whatever outcomes we are being graded on, even when we know that other outcomes might be more important. This so-called "managing to metrics" is a common practice that can create operational challenges if the metrics under management aren’t aligned with the mission and goals of the organization.
What gets measured gets managed
When it comes to student success, the metric that college and university leaders most often "manage to" is first-year retention, reflecting a long-standing belief that the majority of attrition occurs in the first year of college. However, EAB’s Murky Middle research shows that more than half of all attrition actually occurs in the upper-class years, suggesting that the first-year retention metric is missing most of the problem. Further consider that first-year retention excludes all transfers, part-time starts, and non-degree seekers, and you will discover that 83% of all students at four-year schools are unaccounted for in the first-year retention metric. It is clear that we need a more comprehensive set of metrics to manage if we want to protect and support all of our students.
While a modern student success strategy will still include initiatives aimed at improving first-year retention, leaders must expand their focus to protect these gains with additional emphasis on later years. Last year at CONNECTED, I shared our work on the evolution of student success and framed the expanding set of demands facing student success leaders as a new mandate to creating a “Return on Education” (ROE): graduate more students, in less time and at lower cost, while ensuring the best possible post-graduate outcomes.
The emerging discipline of student success management
Building on the 220+ proven student success best practices EAB has amassed in partnership with our members, this year we are researching how progressive colleges and universities are responding to the new ROE mandate by defining, tracking, and managing a more expansive and comprehensive set of metrics, including fast-cycle and full-cycle metrics. These pioneering schools are focused on four major themes:
- Maximize overall persistence. More and more schools are beginning to track unofficial persistence metrics that span across all class years and student types. These metrics are often tracked in support of advising campaigns designed to reenroll any current student who hasn’t registered for the next term or applied for gradation. Many of these students are having financial crises, so reenrollment campaigns are increasingly coupled with financial aid programs such as FAFSA counseling and emergency microgrants.
- Maximize credit attempts. The rise of “15 to Finish” campaigns has called much-needed attention to the large number of full-time students who are taking just 12 credits per term. These students are pacing toward a five-year graduation—and an extra year of tuition. Public awareness campaigns coupled with updated advising strategies are doing a lot to improve the situation. We’ve also seen growing interest in degree planning and tracking initiatives such as meta-majors, degree maps, and success marker courses. The success of these initiatives is often judged by the ratio of full-time students that take a complete 15+ credit course load.
- Maximize credit completion. When a student fails a class, a number of negative things can happen. Progress to graduation is slowed, which adds cost. GPAs go down, threatening financial aid. Confidence is shaken, sapping the will to continue and calling into question the choice of major. It is no surprise that a huge number of student success initiatives are focused squarely on reducing DFW rates. For years, schools have used academic early warning systems to help connect struggling students with academic support. More recently, we’ve seen faculty and administrators begin to use data analytics to identify courses that could be redesigned to improve pass rates without sacrificing rigor.
- Maximize post graduate outcomes. Underemployment among recent graduates remains near its recession-era highs. In response, it is becoming more and more common to hear administrators talk about career preparation as a central component of their overall student success strategies. The best practices and associated key performance metrics are still emerging, but we know that progress will be limited until schools can get a better sense of what on-campus actions and activities tie directly to positive post graduate outcomes.
What’s next for student success management?
Thinking about student success through a lens of metric management will be new to some schools, and there are naturally many open questions.
First, what full-cycle metrics should we be using to track and manage our progress against these goals? To maximize persistence rates, it seems clear that we need to be looking at term-over-term persistence. Maximizing credit attempts also seems straightforward—it’s the number of full-time students that are taking 15+ credits—but a good metric would also somehow take into account students who are unable to take a full load. To maximize credit completion, we should be looking at DFW rates, something that is already familiar for most campuses. Post-graduate outcomes are the most tricky, since the data is harder to obtain. Could we look at underemployment rates for recent grads? Or perhaps we need to develop some sort of career readiness index to measure students while they are already on campus?
Second, what “fast-cycle” metrics roll up to these full-cycle metrics? A CEO doesn’t wait until the end of a quarter to understand how her organization is progressing against sales goals. Rather, she monitors interim data on a daily and weekly basis. So why are we waiting until the end of the year to understand how we are progressing against our student success goals? What metrics can we look at in real time to understand how we are doing and when a course correction is needed?
Third, what leadership and organizational structures are needed to adopt this philosophy? Who reviews these metrics, and how often? How do we organize our support offices and processes to take action when a problem is spotted? What implications does a shift to student success management have for our expectations of staff and administrators?
Our research teams are actively looking at these issues. At CONNECTED this year, we will share our findings, including emerging best practices and case studies from schools that are moving the dial on these metrics. And we need your help! To be a part of this conversation, please reach out to me on Twitter @HigherEdVenit with ideas, practices, or reflections on student success management at your institution.