Wanted: Student-Centered Colleges

Dan Greenstein

For the past several weeks, I have been taking a critical look at conventional wisdom and common assumptions about higher education to raise awareness of the realities facing today’s colleges and universities, and their students. This week, I’m focusing on a debate that lies at the heart of the completion movement:

#4: Getting to graduation is the responsibility of students, not institutions.

While this perspective is certainly not universal, it is more common than many realize. In conversations with people outside our enterprise of higher ed (and even a few inside it), I hear the view that, as adults, college students should be able to make it on their own and, if they can’t, then perhaps they just aren’t college material.

There are a couple of problems with this school of thought. First, the problem for many students is one of navigation, not ability. The combination of too many options, and too little information and advice makes process the hardest part of college rather than the learning. Moreover, our colleges and universities are changing at a slower pace than our student population. Today’s college students are more diverse than ever before and have a range of academic, financial, and career guidance and support needs that many institutions are not equipped to handle. As I’ve seen through my son’s experience, going to college in 2017 is definitely NOT like going to college in 1977!

And people are getting that message. Just over half of Americans rightly believe that student success is a shared responsibility—that colleges and universities have a role to play in helping students cross the finish line. And a growing number of colleges and universities are taking significant steps toward becoming more student-centered, as demonstrated by the rise of the guided pathways movement.

So what does it mean to be a student-centered college? I recently had the opportunity to visit Georgia State University to learn about their efforts from the perspective of students and staff. Those conversations led me to four key features of student-centered colleges:

  1. It’s about access AND success. In the push to improve persistence and completion rates, we absolutely must take care to ensure that we are not pursuing those goals by becoming more selective. One of the things that is notable about the work at Georgia State—and other members of the University Innovation Alliance (UIA) —is the commitment to increase success rates and close graduation gaps by race and income without raising admissions standards. That’s a pretty strong statement to make in a sector (research universities) that has traditionally celebrated exclusivity over inclusion.
  2. Take a hard look in the mirror, and then take action. My friend and colleague Kati Haycock says it best: “Show me an institution that has really improved its student outcomes, and I guarantee you that data are part of their story.” That is certainly true at Georgia State, where a look at thousands of pieces of information yielded clues about where students were hitting roadblocks. One key response was to strengthen its advising efforts, benefiting first-generation students like Tyler Mulvenna. And for those who argue that beefing up student services is just too expensive, I offer this: GSU has found that each percentage point increase in retention nets several million dollars in tuition revenue from the students who stick around.
  3. “Small” things can make a big difference. Georgia State’s exploration of the data also revealed that their students were getting tripped up on things like registering for courses, resulting in wasted credits and aid dollars that led to dropout for many. Another barrier that surfaced was relatively small but unplanned personal expenses that created a gap in students’ ability to pay tuition and thus stay enrolled. The university has tackled both of those obstacles, implementing live and virtual advising improvements that have substantially reduced registration errors, as well as a nationally-recognized retention grant program that has helped more than 7,000 students in just four years.
  4. Persistence is key. Perhaps the least discussed part of the GSU story is the time and effort it has taken them to get where they are today. Their drive to improve student outcomes started nearly a decade ago, and campus leaders and staff will tell you that not everything they’ve tried has worked as planned. Staying the course can be difficult in a world where the average tenure of a college president is about four years and where term-limited policymakers are demanding immediate results. As with data, I have yet to see a high-performing or high-potential institution that has not been involved in a sustained effort to improve their performance. There are no overnight success stories.

I’m an optimist by nature. My takeaway from what I saw and heard in Atlanta is that student-centered colleges are not just a possibility, but a reality. New data from the UIA show that its members have increased the number of low-income graduates by 25 percent in just three years, and are on track to exceed their 2025 completion goals. These institutions are showing that real progress on student success does not require herculean effort or massive investment, but it does require commitment, humility, a willingness to experiment and challenge conventional wisdom and the rankings, and an unwavering focus on today’s college students and their needs.

Georgia State shows us that we have the skill to help many more of our students achieve a quality education after high school. The question we need to ask is: “Do we have the will to use it, and if not, why not?”