Student Success Insights Blog

The soul of student success

by Michael Koppenheffer

Watch the ConnectED Stories

When I was in college, I only had one conversation with my academic advisor, a stocky, bearded cellist from the music department. As an eager freshman, I made an appointment to go see him to get help planning my courses and advice on acclimating to college. But when I showed up at his office, he gave me a quizzical look and said, "That’s funny, they usually give me the football players." Needless to say, I never returned.

Nowadays, I work frequently with our Student Success Collaborative members, who are using technology, best practice research, and heroic on-the-ground effort to improve the student experience and elevate student outcomes, but in the back of my mind, I could never quite shake the image of my advisor, who never connected with me and provided no help or guidance.

The ConnectED Stories

After watching the ConnectED stories at this year’s CONNECTED Student Success Collaborative Summit, however, that image of the impassive, disengaged advisor has been dispelled forever. For the ConnectED stories, we selected six leaders from our Student Success Collaborative membership to present 10-minute distillations of their insights and experiences.

I am as skeptical as the next person about conferences and conference presentations. At this point in my career, I’ve spent many weeks of my life in darkened hotel ballrooms listening to pundits at podiums, and usually could have imagined many better uses of my time. But I honestly wish that everyone who works in the field of advising and student success could have been at the Marriott Marquis in Washington, D.C., with me yesterday to be as inspired as I was.

As an audience member, I found the ConnectED stories transfixing. In part, this was because of the obvious passion, commitment, and intellect displayed by the presenters. But it’s also because their stories were all examples of how pursuing deep understanding—through research, data, and exploration—can break through systemic problems and transform lives for individual students.

Insight and impact

Eric Kirby from Southern Utah University shared how his in-depth work with Native American students helped him identify hidden causes of their disengagement from the university. One of his moments of realization was that Paiute students were not using university resources intended for all Native American students because those resources were housed in a "chapter house"—and "chapter house" is a Navajo term, not a Paiute term, so the Paiute students didn’t feel like the resources were intended for them.

Brian Payne from Old Dominion University gave a personal account of how his own experience as a first-generation student and faculty member has shaped his student success leadership and sharpened his focus on providing support for first-generation students. (His biggest applause came from the following: "Two signs of a first-gen faculty member: The first is, you don’t know the difference between a red wine glass and a white wine glass. And the second is, you really don’t care.")

Monica Brockmeyer from Wayne State related her remarkable story of how the university’s investment of caring and resources in student success, including a cadre of 45 academic advisors, has resulted in graduation rates nearly doubling across six years: from a 26 percent graduation rate in 2011 to 47 percent in 2017.

Chris Hutt from Kennesaw State told how sending a brief email with an open-ended offer of help in the spring to 4,000 students who hadn’t yet registered to return in the fall resulted in 1,300 (!) responses and revealed many opportunities to remove unnecessary institutional barriers. For example, Hutt discovered that some otherwise successful students were being prevented from registering because of an outstanding $35 parking ticket—a ticket they almost certainly would never pay if they failed to return to school at all, as he pointed out.

Watch Dr. Hutt's Story:


Free tool: Evaluate the strength of your advising program

Charlie Robbins from Stony Brook University argued that focusing on the particular challenges of young men could shrink the sometimes sizeable gap in graduation rates between men and women. Robbins’s work found that, though men are often thought to be advantaged or privileged in institutional settings, the norms of masculinity for Stony Brook’s college-age population often prevented male students from succeeding academically or even socially.

In closing, Tim Renick from Georgia State explained how technology, including an admitted student "chatbot," made a meaningful difference in ensuring that admitted students actually arrived on campus in the fall. Renick brought his program’s impact to life through the example of one talented, hard-working student with a difficult family background who nearly did not make it to campus because of last-minute financial challenges, but who got assistance from the chatbot.

Validation from Bill Gates?

To emphasize what a big deal technology-enabled student success interventions can be, Renick also told the story of how Bill Gates—yes, that Bill Gates—recently made a special visit to the Georgia State campus to learn more about the impact of technology on supporting vulnerable students.

But honestly, by that point, I didn't need Bill Gates’s endorsement. Hearing the stories of these exceptional individuals, their insight, and their real-world impact brought home to me how important the work of student success really is, and what an exciting time this is for the discipline. It’s an honor for us at EAB to be able to support this work.

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