Overcoming Program-itis: A Systemic Approach to Student Success

By Cynthia Schrager, Senior Fellow, EdInsights

June 2018

What makes efforts to improve student success rates at large public universities so challenging, particularly in light of committed efforts by faculty, staff, and administrators to improve student learning, progression, and completion? In a recent study of all 23 CSU campuses, From Scatterplot to Roadmap: New Efforts to Improve Student Success in the California State University, my co-authors and I set out to understand that question. Our findings are consistent with those from other studies cited in the report, namely, that achieving substantial improvements in student success and in closing opportunity gaps requires broad, coordinated transformation of core institutional processes.

Throughout the CSU, we found ample evidence of robust efforts underway to support students along their pathways—from preparing for and choosing the CSU through getting ready for graduation and future plans. Without exception, campuses are giving student success pride of place in university mission statements—and the campuses also are doing much more than that. They are, for example, dedicating significant resources, time, and imagination to a wide variety of programs and strategies encompassing leadership and governance, data-informed decision-making, program and curricular planning, academic engagement, support services, and professional development. Examples of their efforts are highlighted in our report.

Our report also found that focusing at the program level is not enough. A key CSU stakeholder summarized a struggle identified by all interviewees—which provided an apt title for our report—how do you “pull together all of these activities” into a “roadmap” as opposed to “a scatterplot of activities”? Or, as another interviewee observed, “Supporting student success doesn’t just mean waving a magic wand over here in a particular program or support group…It means making fundamental changes to the curriculum.” Indeed, our interviews with CSU faculty, staff, and administrators suggest that supporting student learning and success requires transforming the curriculum along with other key functions and core processes on campus. We found early evidence of such systemic efforts underway in the CSU, and we uncovered a number of challenges that make these efforts a heavy, but not an insurmountable, lift.

The opportunities and challenges we uncovered varied from campus to campus; in many cases they centered on attempts to shift from implementing or improving individual programs to developing campus-wide strategies for systemic change. Opportunities include the following:

  • Addressing student needs holistically, including financial and social/emotional as well as academic issues;
  • Identifying examples of where this work is taking place and finding more opportunities to learn from successful efforts at peer campuses;
  • Engaging multiple stakeholder groups in student success efforts and recognizing that the relational side of change requires as much attention as does the technical side;
  • Supporting faculty engagement in campus-wide student success efforts and seeing faculty as essential partners in success;
  • Making data accessible and empowering campus stakeholders to use data to inform decision-making around student success strategies;
  • Coordinating across existing institutional departments, and especially finding strategies to integrate academic and student affairs in the service of student success;
  • Working to find solutions to rapid leadership turnover, given the importance of leaders who are vocal and visible champions of student success; and
  • Managing resource constraints with more effective allocation of resources to have the greatest impact.

To imagine what an integrated approach might look like when it is implemented and working well, consider the following three dimensions of your campus: resource management and planning; programmatic and curricular design; and guidance on navigating students’ paths. Are these three campus functions coordinated in placing student success at their center?

Developing stronger resource management and planning requires institutional leaders to make decisions about the allocation of limited resources based on rigorous analysis of data. For example, this could include projecting student enrollment demand to ensure adequate capacity in courses and majors; assessing program effectiveness and directing resources toward those that achieve results; and reorganizing administrative or advising structures to create synergies and efficiencies.

Coordinating programmatic and curricular design means, for example, providing support for faculty to redesign courses and course pathways to support student success; rethinking partnerships to tighten articulation with K-12 schools and community colleges; and rethinking instructional modalities by using approaches such as co-requisites, supplemental instruction, and online learning.

Improving guidance on navigating students’ paths means strengthening collaborations with K-12 and community college partners to improve college readiness; supporting the use of new advising tools for faculty, staff, and students and improving the coordination of supports for students; and providing guidance that addresses the whole student, including academic, health, and financial well-being.

All of this will require a tighter articulation of institutional functions that have traditionally been separated by custom, practice, and organizational charts. This framework from our report might help CSU campuses frame their institutional functions as they relate to student pathways through the university. Confronting change at this order of magnitude may make us long for a return to a more programmatic focus. Designing and implementing programs may be part of the DNA in higher education. But programmatic solutions alone will never create the kind of organizational coherence needed to significantly improve student learning, progression, and completion in public higher education.