On Higher Education and Student Success – A Unique Approach

Over the last decade, we have seen an intense focus placed upon enhancing the retention rate and graduation rate of college students. Numerous programs have been established and a deluge of funds have been unleashed to support various innovative programs supported through the latest data analytics platforms and statistical models. Many states have restructured their funding formula for higher education in order to tie them to performance metrics that value student progression, retention and graduation rates. National programs and various state supported programs have allocated substantial sums of money to reward those efforts and the institutions that have not complied have seen cutbacks in funding. However, thus far, the results have been less than remarkable. Figure (1) below, illustrates the percentage of four-year college students who earn a degree within five years of entry [1].

Retention 1

Figure (1) – Percentage of Four-Year College Students Who Earn a Degree within Five Years of Entry (data from ACT Institutional Data Files [1]).

Note that from 2005 to 2015, there has been a very modest increase of less than one percent in the graduation rate of students in all institutions. When one compares this modest gain to the significant investments that are made, the Return on Investment (ROI) signals a less than satisfactory outcome.

Additionally, a comparison of the percentage of first-year students at all four-year public and private institutions who return for a second year shows practically no change (74.4%, (see figure (2)) despite tremendous efforts and funds devoted to enhancement programs.

Retention 2

Figure (2) – Percentage of First-Year Students at Four-Year Colleges Who Return for Second Year {from ACT Institutional Data Files [1]}.

Are all these programs ineffective? Hardly, as most are carefully crafted to address various pedagogical and situational needs of different groups of students. They are primarily based on years of studies, analytics and statistical analyses pertaining to an average student within a defined group. But, is there such an individual as an “average” student even within a defined group, such as “first-generation”? Moreover, the learning environment and the educational technology are changing so rapidly that it is hard to predict the degree of effectiveness of different modes of learning for groups of students with vastly different needs.

What are the Solutions?
This is indeed a very complex problem that requires a much more in-depth analyses, above and beyond the intent of this article. However, in an attempt to improve the current conditions, a new approach is proposed to address some of the shortcomings of existing practices.
Let us approach the problem with the premise that there is no such individual that could be considered an “average” student. Rather, each individual has unique characteristics that can affect her/his learning style and, therefore, must be treated accordingly. Moreover, a student could belong to several defined groups, e.g. an international student who is also a first-generation student. While the delivery of a customized education to the specific needs of only one student may not be possible, it is, however, possible to incorporate the concept of mass-customization to a great extent in order to meet the needs of every single student.
In recent years, Tennessee Tech University, like many other institutions of higher education, has established and implemented numerous student success programs. In February of 2016, we held a Saturday retreat inviting representatives from various sectors of our university and other stakeholders to examine and revisit our many student success initiatives and consider ways to integrate those programs in a synergic fashion so that they impact student retention and graduation in a far more effective manner.

Please see my full article describing the outcome of our retreat and our method of approach:



  1.  Retention/Completion Summary Tables, ACT Institutional Data Files, 2015   http://forms.act.org/research/policymakers/pdf/2015-Summary-Tables.pdf
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