The May 1 commitment deadline is at your back, you’ve battled through the summer melt, and now you’ve finally crossed the finish line with a new crop of students being welcomed to your campus. All that’s left is a comprehensive orientation experience that gives them everything they need in order to succeed at your institution, right?
Maybe there was a time when simply getting students to show up and attend orientation was enough. Now, with the increasing enrollment and retention struggles higher ed has been facing since even before the pandemic, institutions can’t afford to be passive when it comes to supporting their student body, keeping them engaged in the learning experience, and steering them along the path toward graduation day and career success thereafter. To do that effectively, institutions need to be able to both personalize and individualize the experience for each and every learner.
This isn’t new information; higher ed professionals have been touting this for decades, and staff and faculty have been desperately trying to do what they can, often with limited time and resources. What is new is the role technology can play in easing and amplifying the efforts of your human workforce. By breaking down data silos, harnessing the power of fully connected data from the entire student lifecycle, and then adding innovative tools to analyze that data, institutions can combat the challenges of shrinking budgets, above average student-to-advisor ratios, and competing priorities. And they can do all this by personalizing and individualizing the student experience at scale with relative ease and efficiency. Here’s what you can do to support student success once orientation ends and the rest of their academic journey begins.
1. Don’t judge a student by any other student’s needs.
Realizing that no two students are exactly alike is the first step. The second is to acknowledge that generalizing or profiling based on raw data, demographics or socioeconomics does not present an accurate picture of a student and should not be used to decipher what that student needs. Assuming a student will struggle based solely on a few checked boxes in their student profile is as misguided as assuming a student will be a high achiever for the same reason. This can be, at best, a waste of valuable resources, and at worst, a roadblock to a student’s success.
Schools that have been working with data for a while have already realized the error in this way of thinking. Instead of allotting resources based on labels and typecasts, they are focusing on interactions. Did a student come for a campus visit? Have they been interacting with their emails? Did they apply late? These interactions tell a far more meaningful story of student behavior than race, gender or financial aid eligibility.
Knowing what a student has already done to engage with your institution can be a more reliable predicter of how that student will continue to engage and what outcomes will be achieved as a result. For example, the likelihood of success for a student who waits to apply until the last minute may be significant for one institution but not so much for a different institution. Either way, a student’s ability to succeed should not be limited to one interaction on one day; it should be a collection of all interactions from their first contact with your institution and building up to present day, while also factoring in their unique background. And the story should continue even after they graduate and become alumni, but that’s a topic for another article.
2. Make advising about more than just academics.
Having strong academic support for your students seems like a no-brainer. Most people equate a high GPA as a sign of student success. However, to effectively support students, advisors need to be equipped with more than an academic record. They should be able to look at the stories and interactions behind those grades, so they can have appropriate resources in place to help students avoid roadblocks to success.
Oftentimes, the hurdles have nothing to do with a student’s ability to understand and complete the coursework and everything to do with the circumstances that are preventing them from doing so. For instance, students who are struggling financially may have to decide between buying a book or buying a meal. Other students may have life responsibilities that interfere with their classes: an existing career, childcare issues, caring for aging parents and so on. None of these circumstances are a reflection of a student’s ability to achieve academic greatness, merely an impediment to them doing so.
Institutional resources are limited, but knowing why a certain population of your students is struggling can help you prioritize accordingly. If you have a large group of students with food insecurities, find ways to make free food available on campus. If many students struggle to find adequate childcare, then prioritize a childcare facility or seek partnerships. From financial support to mental health counseling, the more you know about the types of challenges your students typically face, the better you can align your resources and remove the barriers to their success.
3. Give your students a sense of belonging.
A colleague recently told me that the number one question she saw on a parent group for her son’s college was, “How do I get my student involved?” That is the same question institutions should be asking themselves every day because it’s not enough for a student to attend all their classes and pay all their bills. Students need to be engaged in the student experience beyond simply showing up for class. After all, happy, successful students who feel emotionally connected to their school have a good chance of becoming happy, successful alumni that give back to that school.
But, what about all the non-traditional students we mentioned above, who might not have as much time to get involved or engage socially on campus? It is still important to help them feel connected beyond recognizing the school fight song. Engagement doesn’t only mean joining a club or student organization; it can also mean creating a personal connection with someone on campus. Simply put, everyone wants to know that someone cares about them.
Take another look at that data story you’ve been building from the beginning of the student experience, look at those interactions and see where you can do better. Better yet, ask your students directly. Tools are available that can help you reach out to students before they ever step foot on campus to assess their level of confidence as well as gauge how they respond to certain scenarios. This type of insight could be game-changing for advisors and faculty looking to start a deeper conversation and create a deeper, long-term connection with students.
4. Include career services as early in the journey as possible.
When I say incorporate career services as early as possible, I am talking from day one. Too many institutions wait until junior year to start pushing students toward career services for resume building and internships. When you consider that job opportunities are the main reason students are seeking a degree, it is only logical that this critical element should be part of the process right away. Ideally, it would be embedded in and drive the entire educational journey. Maybe it wasn’t possible a few years ago, but now it’s not only doable; it’s already being done.
Coppin State University (CSU), an Anthology customer, has been a leading example of this type of forward-thinking. They have incorporated powerful workplace development technology right into their core curriculum, actively engaging students to consider their career path throughout the entire student journey. In the words of CSU Dean of College of Business Dr. Sadie Gregory, “We can’t put it on a computer in the corner of a career center and think it’d be an effective solution.” That is the reality for many institutions—students not only don’t know where to look for career services, they also aren’t looking soon enough to make a significant impact on their path to success.
5. Don’t just show them the endpoint; show them the mile-markers along the way.
Piggybacking off the idea of embedding career services into a student’s journey from the start, you should use that data yield to create a guided pathway for students to follow. One that is—you guessed it—both personalized and individualized, not to mention, subject to change.
Students might come to campus with a clear set of goals and motivations, but those things can change over time. Maybe the straight-out-of-high-school set is being groomed for higher education and, therefore, pushed to completion by outside expectations. Yet, for students who have already been out in the world, there is no telling what sparked their decision to obtain a degree. It could be as extreme as losing a job or as subtle as wanting to be a better role model for their kids. What motivates someone when they first arrive on campus could change once that initial spark of motivation becomes nothing but a flicker. So, how do you help make sure those students graduate?
You need to remind them of their goals and help them adapt their learning path when those goals change. A visual aid can go a long way, helping them map out the path ahead by showing them where they’ve already been. Use dynamic workforce data to show them that their path can lead to real outcomes and real salaries. Additionally, credentialing and badging tools can be powerful aids in reminding students that they have already made headway on their path toward success.
In this age of connected data and in-depth analysis, don’t miss the opportunity to get to know your students, give them what they need, connect with them on a personal level, and keep them motivated on a guided path before they lose the motivation to be there at all. The insights are in the interactions; all you need is the power to unlock them.