Student Success: It’s Time to Think Outside the Box!



The student success pillar of the Educause Top IT Issues of 2021 describes the need to advance student support services to help students attain academic and career success. With the ever-increasing cost of education, you want to be sure you have the right student support services at the right time in a student’s journey. But what support services have the most bang for their buck? Do you have to provide everything all the time? What’s the best approach?

You can take an all-encompassing approach or you can take a student-centric approach, focusing on the services that support students best in their academic and career success. But what do those services look like: Tutoring? Advising? Transportation stipends? Book stipends? Technology? Predictive analytics?

Graduation Expectations

Let’s start by considering on-time graduation as one way to define student success. Though “on-time” typically means 2 years for an associate degree or 4 years for a bachelor’s, it’s well known that many students take more than 2 and 4 years to get their degrees. Based on the 2- and 4-year expectations, a discouraging 44% of students graduated from public institutions on time during 2019-2020 academic year (based on data from UNISTATS).

Even the federal government recognizes this challenge with the inclusion of 200% graduation rate and outcomes measures among the required IPEDS surveys. So, why are undergraduates taking 6 to 8 years to complete their degrees or leaving their institution altogether? (We’ll answer this a little later on.)

Get Informed

The amount of information available on how a college or university student can graduate on time is plentiful – and it begins even before they enroll at an institution. Such information includes how prospective students:

  • Research and choose prospective institutions
  • Select a major
  • Meet an academic advisor
  • Ensure a full course credit load

Even after being accepted into a college or university, students can still struggle achieving success. They don’t just show up, pay their tuition, and start their educational journey. All students are accepted and ultimately admitted by the institution. Therefore, the institution also has ownership of student success and on-time graduation.

Think Outside the Box

Students are already taught to think outside the box to encourage innovation and creativity in their educational performance. They are then expected to use this thinking and apply it successfully in their professional careers. But how can institutions use out-of-the-box thinking to promote and design strong student success outcomes? Should a 2-year or 4-year graduation rate metric be used to define whether a student is successful?

Customer Service

To meet their students’ success needs, institutions can start learning from businesses that focus on delivering great customer service. After all, onboarding students is the process of bringing on a new student to your institution and treating them as customers.

This is the institution’s opportunity to establish a relationship with the traditional, or the ever-changing non-traditional, student. Address the student’s concerns, get the student up to speed, and start their path to success on the right foot. One of the primary goals of the onboarding process should be to build confidence in the student that their desired outcome of graduating on-time will be achieved.

Be Flexible

Institutions can help students get off to a positive start by offering ways they can get continuous insight into study skills and time management. This should be done for both in-person and virtual learning opportunities. Offering flexibility and flexible schedules allow traditional and non-traditional students to adapt their educations to busy schedules – and that flexibility helps keep the student engaged. (Even before the pandemic, a student’s journey to success could be impeded by numerous distractions.)


For many students, the financial expense of higher education impacts their ability to graduate on time. As the cost of achieving a degree increases, how can institutions (along with lenders) offer students incentives for academic performance? When students graduate and enter the workforce, they will be incentivized to perform. So why can’t institutions reward students for good grades, attending classes, using learning resources, and achieving their on-time graduation goal?

Put yourself in their shoes

Yes, it’s likely you went to college just like these students. But a lot has probably changed in the years in between, and it shouldn’t be assumed that their college experience will be like yours. Therefore, it’s in the best interest of college administrators to put themselves in the shoes of their students.

Carefully observe both the student lifecycle and experience to define specific paths for students to choose. Also, faculty and administrators must make a concerted effort to understand how students interact with the institution. (Using process maps helps in understanding what is required for students to get answers, or if the students are receiving excessive non-relevant communications.)

Allow for movement

Sometimes students need to move on to a different institution. Or they need to step away from their studies for an indeterminate time and end up resuming them somewhere else. (According to UNISTATS, the transfer out rate is nearly 20%, on average, for public institutions.) When this happens, students often experience issues with loss of credits because institutions don’t want to recognize credits from other institutions for the same course. This institutional behavior does not focus on student success, but rather increases student debt and delays any possibilities for the student to be successful. Institutions can establish policies, processes, and mechanisms to better accommodate these students.

Work alongside the workforce

More and more, students are returning to school for continued learning opportunities, to upskill, or to get a certification for a job promotion. Can relevant work experience be applied to their credits? For example, is it necessary for a student to take a class on the Microsoft suite when they are using the Microsoft Office suite daily with their current employer?

Courses should all have a value proposition based on the labor market and career opportunities available. Courses can also include certifications as prerequisites for degree completion to strengthen the student’s candidacy for future employers.


The path to student success is less of a straight line from point A to point B and more of an individualized – often winding – route. Simply put, life happens. (Remember when we asked, “Why are undergraduates taking 6 to 8 years to complete their degrees or leaving their institution altogether?” This is why!) The recent pandemic highlighted this more than we could ever have imagined. It created an urgency for digital transformation, and higher education found itself to be behind the curve.

So, maybe it’s time for colleges and universities to think outside the box when it comes to driving student success. And as they do – and as technology plays an increasing role in our daily lives – it should be easier for colleges and universities to engage with their students and reduce the barriers to student success and on-time graduation.

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