As fall semesters kick in across the country, two major concerns stay top-of-mind for many higher education leaders: student retention and success.
The number of students dropping out with no degree is growing, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. At the same time, mental health and financial challenges are taking a toll on learners, making the college journey even more stressful, especially for underserved, first-generation and low-income students.
Mental health, financial aid, and academic and career advising services can help. In our new study, Driving Toward a Degree 2023: Awareness, Belonging, and Coordination, we found that when learners were more aware that their institution offered academic advising, they were ten percentage points more likely to feel confident that they would pass their courses that term and graduate on time.
But, even when higher education institutions offer robust services, they often are under-used and result in a disjointed student experience. This year’s Driving Toward a Degree, which surveyed more than 2,000 students and 1,700 institutional stakeholders, shines a light on how institutions can improve academic and non-academic support for all students, improving their likelihood to persist.
The ABCs of Student Success
It’s clear institutions are working hard to better support their students. With our research, we aimed to juxtapose those well-intentioned services with how students actually experience them.
There are three main components to sparking student achievement: awareness, belonging, and coordination. Institutions would do well to shore up their efforts in each category. Here’s why.
Not nearly enough learners know about the services available to them. About two-thirds of student respondents were unaware of their institution’s many existing support services.
High caseloads are one problem, limiting the time advisors have to support students and communicate their services. Even at institutions that mandate advising at scale, advisors only meet with 85% of their caseloads.
Advisors lack awareness, too. Only one-third of academic advisors said they can identify the demographics of students in their advising caseload who they are not meeting. Most don’t know if the students who need them most – underserved, first-generation and low-income learners – are using them.
What’s more, advisors aren’t always aligned with student needs. Some 47% of students said “financial issues” are “very important” to discuss with academic advisors; only 20% of advisors agreed (likely due to availability of specialized financial aid counseling at more institutions).
Students feel a sense of belonging when they believe they are valued and respected; it’s critical to their success, research shows. But that requires an advising approach that addresses all their needs – immediate worries about a chemistry midterm and ongoing concerns about how to afford tuition or handle feelings of anxiety.
When students know about financial aid or mental health resources, that awareness bolsters their confidence in continuing their studies and belief that their school cares about them. But often, these services are siloed across campuses.
Those siloed and compartmentalized services limit access. The results of the survey indicated that students are far more likely to be aware of all services when institutions offer them near each other, such as through one-stop shops or mini hubs.
What’s more, schools with services located nearby more often offered students an online portal where they could access resources, boosting equal awareness and access, most surveyed advisors said.
Advising technology is also disjointed. The majority of often overworked advisors must juggle two to three or more screens when meeting with a student, adding to the pressures they’re already facing.
Supporting Advisors, Supporting Students
Boosting student success requires addressing each of those ABCs through a multi-pronged effort. Here are some actionable steps institutions can take.
- Prioritize awareness: Sharing support services contact information in new student orientations or syllabus notes is too passive and building awareness requires active, ongoing engagement. Include links to support services on the front page of online portals. On building signage, don’t just include the name, display which offices are inside. In the classroom, have instructors make regular announcements about advising and support.
- Boost belonging: Give advisors easy access and insights into the student subgroups that are using (and not using) support services. With the data, they can target the students most in danger of dropping out and better understand their unique needs. As one industry professional shared, with information about students’ goals and desired supports, advisors can provide more personalized and culturally responsive services. As a result, students feel seen and heard.
- Enhance collaboration: Make advising holistic. Integrate services physically and digitally and build out efficient referral systems so students are guided to what they need. Having easy access to information and data about students will make advisors more efficient, clearing time to help students problem solve by practicing at the top of their license rather than processing paperwork, leading to improved support of students.
On the horizon, there’s more to keep an eye on, Driving Toward a Degree found. Advisor retention is the next big obstacle for student services. The work to shore up student outcomes, after all, isn’t an easy one. But student support providers play an outsized role in student success. And, when we give them the tools to do their job, we help them, and we help students.
Catherine Shaw, lead author of Driving Toward a Degree, is a Director at Tyton Partners, a strategy consulting and investment banking firm focused on the education sector. Cathy advises companies, institutions and foundations on student success, impact and sustainability and has been working in education for more than 10 years.
Mirko Widenhorn, EdD, is a Senior Director of Engagement Strategy at Anthology, an organization that strives to provide dynamic, data-informed experiences to the global education community, and has over 11 years of higher education experience.