The students and faculty are online, but what about the staff? How student affairs and academic support staff adapt to COVID-19

Originally published on April 7 in Inside Higher Ed.


This article steps back from existing structures and staff within student affairs and academic support services and reimagine what might be best for students in a solely online learning world the next few months.  Recommendations that will be proposed include:

  1. Use the Learning Management System’s data on students as an early alert
  2. Collect student feedback on their success as online students
  3. Implement a coaching program
  4. Create staff-initiated student conversations among the students
  5. Interact with students outside 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  6. Focus on students most at risk for dropping out
  7. Hold staff office hours

Setting the stage

Higher education is having an early wake-up call. Although many universities have successfully shifted more of their education online in recent decades, many universities are still novices at this. The higher education news of the past few years has been littered with examples of, and warnings about, universities hiring Online Program Management firms to market and oversee their online offerings.

The United States has traditionally been one of the best examples of physical campus-based learning in the world.  Unfortunately, this is an expensive educational model and when stripped of much of its value (i.e. during COVID-19), it forces traditional campus-based education to compete with much more nimble and reasonably-priced alternatives.

As Richard Arum and Mitchell Stevens put it in the New York Times,

“…the hard fact is that this delivery format is an extraordinarily expensive way of purveying college degrees. Americans’ obsession with residential education as the sine qua non of academic excellence is a big part of what makes higher education roughly twice as costly per student here than it is in European countries.

We recognize that residential programs provide a great deal more to students than mere coursework. They are relationship machines, generating countless friendships, intimate partnerships and professional network ties. That machinery doesn’t translate easily to digital life, which is why residential-campus students, when told to complete their coursework on computers, feel cheated out of much of the value associated with residential college attendance.”

This is the setting higher education is facing in the spring of 2020, when almost all universities have been forced to move education online.  This article focuses on the specific roles of staff who facilitate and oversee the residential campus, typically referred to as student affairs and academic support staff.

The arena of student affairs and academic support staff

I’ve worked in student affairs for almost 30 years and have earned to clearly articulate the benefits of student life to many students, faculty members, and parents. The argument is really quite simple: a student only spends about 15 hours a week in class and another 15 hours a week studying. Allowing time for sleeping and getting ready in the morning, that leaves about 80 waking hours a week when a student is neither in class nor studying for one.

That’s the equivalent of two 40-hour work weeks within one week. And that time is when most student affairs and academic support staff attempt to make a meaningful impact through living-learning experiences, student organization involvement, intramurals and fitness classes, tutoring, career advising, mentoring, volunteering and the like.  For decades, student affairs staff like me have argued that we can have just as much, if not more, of an impact on students.

But the COVID-19 outbreak, the closing of many campuses and the move to online classes potentially nullify the impact thousands of student affairs and academic support staff across the nation can have. And the question worth asking is, “What does student affairs and academic support look like when most students are no longer on campuses?”  Academic support staff members, such as those in counseling, academic advising, tutoring and career placement, are in a similar situation.

Thankfully, many student affairs and academic support staff are quickly learning how to deliver and scale their services in a virtual manner. And now is an excellent time to rethink how students are educated outside the classroom in an online environment. How can we best reallocate our student affairs staff to roles that foster student success in online learning environments?

Here are seven actions we might consider in the coming weeks:

What is happening in student affairs and academic support units?

When it comes to solutions, it is important that we step out of the box because what we are dealing with is a situation where we have a staff potentially have a large amount of time and very few on-campus students to assist.  For example, let’s say that a campus has ten residence halls and therefore ten residence hall directors (RHDs).  Each of these RHDs likely has about 0-10% of their residence hall occupied.  One staff member at the Education Advisory Board even likened germ-laden residence halls to cruise ships this week and the person they were interviewing confirmed that this would be the case unless the local health department took over running the residence hall.  With occupancy rates this low, these residence hall directors are eventually going to have a significant amount of time on their hands.

I interacted with a hall director on March 23 who affirmed this. Their comment to me was that about 8% of their halls were occupied and “this last week was a lot of responding to student and parent emails, (communicating) with student staff, and packing up students’ items and shipping them to them. This next week will be continued planning/trouble shooting within the halls. In a couple weeks I expect things to really slow down.”

The same might apply to the student activities staff who work with student organizations, the student union, Greek Life, and student social programs.  These staff members now have no students to gather together to develop and offer leadership growth opportunities. Student groups can’t meet in person and in-person social events are eliminated (at least university-sponsored ones).  With university recreational centers closed, campus recreation staff have more open schedules without a facility to oversee nor students to play intramurals or participate in fitness activities.

Academic support staff members are in similar situations. Most are not set-up to run on-line tutoring, career guidance, supplemental instruction, mentoring and other common practices that typically occur in person and are most often led by other students. Thankfully, many student affairs and academic support staff are quickly learning how to deliver and scale their services in a virtual manner. Most of these staff members are trying to figure out how to best replicate their in-person work with students in an online manner.  This can take a lot of time and can include counseling and health appointments, tutoring, academic advising, career placement, and others

I am suggesting, however, that now is an excellent time to rethink how students are educated outside the classroom in an online environment.  Any review of some of the best online programs’ student engagement and academic support reveal that their approach is fundamentally different than campus-based student support.  If we don’t take the time to learn a new way of doing business, this first “solution” becomes more of a likelihood, especially at small private universities with less than $100 million in endowment.

Potential solutions

#0. Layoffs – Let’s get the ugly out of the way first (then we can focus on more helpful alternatives)

I am calling this option zero because no one wants to consider it as a realistic option.  However, one solution in a protracted campus shutdown would be to lay off staff, which might include student affairs and academic support staff.  So much of the work in student affairs and academic support is done face-to-face that shifting online may prove untenable.  In addition, many universities are moving to refund spring semester students on their housing, food, etc. As of March 18, a number of colleges, including Amherst, Brown, Clark, Emerson, Harvard, Northeastern, and Tufts have already announced that students will get a refund for room and board if they return home.  While most, if not all, of these universities can easily handle this additional cost due to their massive endowment/student, many other colleges will not be in this situation.

For example, the Hotel at the University of Maryland closed on March 20 and laid off 150 staff.  I would expect layoffs to grow exponentially throughout April as universities plan for their fall budgets and realize cuts are necessary.

Layoffs are further damaging to universities because of the loss of university morale, the destruction of employees’ lives, and further contribution to the national recession.  However, when it comes down to the survival of the institution vs. the survival of individual faculty or staff members, the university almost always wins.  There are countless examples of universities painfully choosing to lay off faculty and staff when the survival of the university is at stake.  Just ask the staff at DePauw, Hardin-Simmons, Miami of Ohio, Northern Colorado, and Oberlin who were let go in the last year.

What if, instead of layoffs, we could find another way to creatively allocate student affairs staff during what is hopefully a somewhat shorter, rather than longer, COVID-19 crisis period?

What if we consider best practices in engaging and supporting online learners and reallocated our

student affairs staff to roles that fostered student success in online learning environments?

#1. Use our learning management system’s data on students as an early alert. If you are in student affairs or other types of student services, find someone at your university who has reporting access to the learning management system (LMS). Work with them to run a report to see which students have not engaged on the system for over a week.  Come up with a plan for reaching out to those students or their faculty members so as to understand their situation and nudge their online engagement. Baylor started doing this last week, and we are finding ways of helping our students navigate the technological, mental and emotional hurdles keeping them from engaging in their online classes.

Champlain College has gone a step further, according to EAB and identified “students most in need of academic intervention by highlighting “risk phrases” in students’ online discussion board posts.  The institution developed a list of frequently used key words and phrases that signal academic risk, (e.g., help!, tried over and over, frustrated, don’t understand).  An automatic script identifies all instances of the words in posts, and instructors are provided a prioritized list of students to proactively contact.”

You can also use your institution’s LMS is to build a predictive model using the data commonly associated with lack of retention.  Many institutions already use predictive models for retention but few that I am aware of integrate data from the LMS.  According to EAB, “Progressive institutions are developing algorithms to predict the risk of attrition using historical records, demographic data, and LMS usage metrics. …Data gleaned from enrollment and admissions information can be paired with in-course activity data, including the number of log-ins and page views, number and length of online postings, minutes spent on the course website, and attempts at practice quizzes or other formative assessments embedded in the online course environment.”

#2. Collect student feedback on their success as online students. One of the challenges most student affairs and academic support staff have is that we can only provide help to the students who seek it.  Many more students don’t know how to ask for help or don’t feel comfortable asking for it. What if the university was able to reach these students in order to learn about their challenges and support them?

A number of institutions employ brief surveys at the start of the semester that give student affairs and academic support staff a pulse on the students.  For example, at Baylor University, we learned through such a process that students were about five times more likely to leave the institution if they responded by “disagreeing” (vs. agreeing) with this question, “Do you feel like you belong at Baylor?”  We also learned that attendance at orientation and welcome events were key factors in student retention, along with their not skipping classes and arriving to class on time.

At the end of March, Baylor sent out a short survey for students that is being used to guide our outreach to them.  The questions were a mix of multiple choice and a few open-ended options. Several of these questions included, among others:

  • How would you describe your overall well-being since Baylor moved to online classes?
  • If you are not doing as well or struggling, what are the main reason(s) you are not doing as well or struggling?
  • Is there anything limiting your ability to participate in your Baylor online learning? Which sources of information from the university have been most helpful in keeping you up-to-date on changes as a result of COVID-19?
  • How would you evaluate your professors’ efforts on what may have been their first week teaching online?
  • What do you think Baylor needs to know about Baylor students like you at this time?

In the first 12 hours, we received over 3,000 responses, and with reminders, we heard from more than 6,500 — or almost half of all of our undergraduates.

And we’ve learned a lot from their answers. Administrators in various departments have reached out to students experiencing technological challenges, those concerned with issues in their specific classes, those needing financial assistance, and those who have self-reported mental health difficulties.  We’ve also created a dashboard and circulated it among university leaders to offer a quick glance at the state of Baylor students.  For example, we know that 20 percent of students are struggling with online learning, although more than half of those who replied to the survey are either surprisingly or extremely impressed with Baylor faculty’s adjustment to teaching online. We also have learned that student respondents also prefer communication in the form of a weekly email from the president.

#3. Implement a coaching program. Coaching programs are one of the fastest-growing student support initiatives of the past decade, and multiple research studies show the effectiveness of such programs. One reason they are thriving is that they are student-centered versus university centered:  you can direct each student to various specialized departments to help them with their distinct needs and guide them to the best resources.  Virtual meetings with students might include conversations about academic behaviors, financial matters, social integration, personal struggles, career guidance, self-care, or setting priorities.

One of the coach trainers at the University of Central Florida’s coaching program for online students, Natasha Williams, describes the role:  “A success coach is an additional layer of support to help students feel like they’re more than just a number. A coach empowers students to do things for themselves by walking them through difficult processes while addressing everything else that they have going on in their lives outside of school.”

Think of a coach as a doctor who is a general practitioner.  Patients start out with a general practitioner often receive all the help they need from them.  However, sometimes, the general practitioner might refer the patient to a specific doctor for specialized care.  Think what might happen if we simply told patients to choose the type of specialist they think they need or want.  They might not make the best decision and have to be directed to several other specialists before finding the right one.

A coach saves the student time by providing a concierge like service to what that student will most benefit from doing.  One of the fastest growing student coaching companies is Inside Track.  Coaches at Inside Track are trained to ask questions of students to learn about what aspects of student success are most relevant at that moment in the student’s life.  Virtual meetings with students might include conversations about academic behaviors, financial matters, social integration, personal struggles, career guidance, self-care, or setting priorities.

In a December 2018 article titled, “Student Affairs Goes Digital: Translating Student Support to the World of Online Learning,” Kevin Kruger and Dave Jarrat share about the University of Central Florida’s coaching program for online students. One of the UCF coach trainers, Natasha Williams, describes the role of a UCF coach as,

“A success coach is an additional layer of support to help students feel like they’re more than just a number. A coach empowers students to do things for themselves by walking them through difficult processes while addressing everything else that they have going on in their lives outside of school… Coaches help students develop personalized plans to graduate by empowering them to understand their degree requirements and take accountability for their own success.”

The coaching idea does not come without challenges.  For starters, it typically requires being willing to re-envision many student affairs and academic support staff roles instead of just hiring a group of entirely new coaches on top of existing roles.  However, the COVID-19 online learning environment is a perfect time to do this.  If a university is ready to give this idea a try, they must be ready to identify coach’s job roles/descriptions, selection processes, required training, and a process of evaluation.

The next big challenge comes in successfully contacting and connecting with students.  Our current communications arena is multi-faceted but with no dominant format.  Although most staff might default to email or phone calls, often texts or video chats work even better. Which option works best will often depend on the student. Once the connection is made, coaches will need to remember that their students may not understand the role of a coach and how to best use this resource.  Coaches will need to help students understand the value they offer.

Baylor rolled out a Bear Care Coaching program the last week in March.  Several hundred university staff volunteered to serve as coaches and watched several short videos made by existing staff about how to coach, how to log comments in a database, and how to connect students to other campus resources.  The coaches contacted students in the survey who evaluated themselves as struggling or who expressed a desire for someone to reach out to them.

#4. Create staff-initiated student conversations among themselves. The current online educational delivery model at most colleges and universities is centered on course delivery.  But students will still want to communicate with each other outside of class time. As former Tulane President Scott Cowen stated in a recent article about how his university responded to Hurricane Katrina, “Institutions should also ensure that groups within the larger campus community — such as individual programs, clubs, and student organizations– remain in close dialogue and find ways to still pursue their interests and plans.”

Ask yourself, “What mechanisms exist that help student affairs and academic support staff to gather students together to talk about how they are doing?”

Most learning management systems allow for non-credit groups to use the course platform, and many colleges and universities have purchased web conferencing software like WebEx or Zoom that can work within their LMS to allow students to communicate with each other. You could also work with your institution’s IT staff to use existing labels in the enterprise resource planning system to put the members of various student organizations in “courses” for ease of communication.  Many students use group use text messaging for this, but the LMS functionality, with staff guidance, may strengthen the connections among students not included in text group chats.

One successful similar idea is Oregon State’s Ecampus Learning Community, which gives students in shared majors the opportunity to connect to each other and their adviser. Another option:  some universities have purchased student organization platforms, like CollegiateLink and OrgSync, that allow students to communicate with one another.

At Baylor, the student affairs staff creates a Facebook group for each entering class before they arrive on the campus. Unprompted, students interact and engage with each other, asking who is going to live where on the campus, who is taking what classes and so on.  Often, students who meet each other on these Facebook groups have even decided they wanted to room together in the fall. You could create a similar-type social media group for current students geographically separated by COVID-19 campus closures, allowing them to talk to and support each other. The staff overseeing the group would only interject if a question came up that no students could answer.

#5. Interact with students outside 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. As a former residence hall director, I always found it fascinating to see how, at 5 p.m., students emerged from their dorms and turned the campus in to their playground while almost every non-student left. What message did that send to the students about faculty and staff willingness to help?

In the COVID-19 era, physical campus-based institutions need to take every possible step to engage, encourage, and equip students for success.  If student affairs staff work from home and potentially have some daytime interruptions like children, pets, and household work, they might also consider an expectation that to best serve students they might need to be available and willing to help later in the evening and on weekends.  For example, Wayne D’Orio writes in a piece on rethinking student services for online education: “Take Sunday evening, which for most colleges is a time when many of their support services are unavailable, waiting to reopen on Monday morning. For a student juggling a job and a family, however, Sunday evening can be a prime time to do schoolwork.”

Knowing that the number of high school graduates is declining every year for the foreseeable future, and that colleges will be fighting tooth-and-nail to attract and keep these students, student affairs and academic support staff would be wise to consider how they can best provide a level of service above their peers.  As Sue Ohrable, a college advising consultant puts it,

“With the growth in popularity of online education, there is a great deal of competition for these students. Establishing a point of difference in support will help attract new students. A popular phrase that’s heard when discussing these strategies is ‘concierge-level service.'”

I am not saying people must work outside of traditional work hours, nor am I saying that there should not be a balance between work and a personal life. Not everyone, every day, has to work nontraditional hours. But colleges that do provide availability and outreach outside traditional work hours are most likely to be successful in serving students effectively and staying competitive in a rapidly changing educational environment.

#6. Focus on students most at risk for dropping out. Many universities already know what groups of students will be less likely to stay in college and graduate.  At many traditional campuses, where 18- to 22-year-old white students make up the majority of students, these groups might include first-generation students, underrepresented minorities, older students who are parents and many others. Unfortunately, the structural and cultural bias towards more traditional students at many higher education institutions can make it difficult for many underrepresented students to succeed.

Student affairs and academic support staff could identify and reach out to students who fall in one or more of the groups that are particularly less likely to remain and graduate. The challenge with this approach is that it can be seen as stereotyping a group of people without knowing them individually. But I would argue that the university is reaching out to students whose success we want to make a priority. By using some open-ended questions like those in the previous survey, we might open the door to further dialogue. Baylor has decided to act on this idea by reaching out to students who are graduating in May, those who studied abroad this spring, those with low G.P.A.s and those who had received more than one early alert this semester.

#7. Hold office hours. Before COVID-19, students typically could come by our offices and/or schedule meetings with us. This can continue — virtually. We can decide how to best reach out to the students and let them know what times they are available each day and week. We can use various software to create the schedule and host office hours including WebEx, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Duo or Google Hangouts.

The week before Baylor restarted classes online, the IT and library staff hosted office hours each day for professors going online.  There were designated time slots for: 1) help with the LMS, 2) web conferencing, 3) media services and 4) instructional design.  What if student affairs and academic support services did something similar with office hours for: 1) class help, 2) personal help, 3) social support, 4) financial questions, 5) library use and 4) spiritual care?


In Scott Cowen’s March 20, 2020 article on what he learned from Tulane’s response to Hurricane Katrina that might be helpful with COVID-19, he states,

“In the end, community is about a sense of belonging and trust. Open, responsive, and reliable communication is the foundation, but there are many other ways for colleges to help build community. As Tulane learned in the fall semester of 2005, it requires ingenuity and experimentation, but it can be done even in the most challenging context. In fact, I would argue that the extraordinary conditions and the collective experience of adapting to a new normal deepened our sense of community. To this day, Tulane’s “Katrina class” is known for its loyalty and special bond with the university.”

In conclusion, now is the time for student affairs and academic support professionals to get out of our comfort zones and try something different.  How can we re-envision our work to re-engage with our new online learners so that they continue to know they are a part of a community that cares about their success?  What do we want our students to say about their college experience during COVID-19 and how we impacted their lives outside of their classes?

Posted in Informed Opinions | Leave a comment

Helping Students to Succeed in College by Learning to Ride a Bike (Part 2)

Ideally, you will have read Part 1 of this post before before reading this entry.  In the first post, the Significant 7 factors for student success before and in the first year of college were introduced.

In this post, we transition in to the sophomore year through graduation for student success.  And since the Big 3 Factors (Co-curricular, Academics, Paying for College = CAP) were featured in the first post, this post is framed as…

Beyond the Big 3 – Moving from Tricycle to Bicycle

The Big 3 Factors were symbolically represented by the need to have three wheels to move  a tricycle.  However, not many, if any, adults, still ride tricycles.  Eventually, we are ready for less support and more challenge.

Usually, students become more autonomous in navigating college and their family support becomes less essential to their success.  Family support still exists, but less in the “hovering above you” sense.  The major shift from a tricycle to a bicycle comes in leaving a wheel behind and learning to balance life on the two remaining wheels.  The wheel that is left off at this point, paying for college, is not one that is forgotten, but it typically becomes  less of a focus after the way forward is figured out in year one.  Tuition is still paid, and part-time work and debt may be needed, but the approach to paying is usually established by year two.

This leaves only the two wheels to ride on: academic and co-curricular engagement.  The academic components continues to be guided by the extent of academic engagement and faculty interaction.  And co-curricular engagement, while seen by some as less important, is just as necessary to thriving in college – as necessary as a second wheel is to a bicycle.  However, there are several new additions to most bicycles versus tricycles.  The three major complexities and improvements in bicycles over trikes are described below.

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.  Albert Einstein

8. Identifying Purpose – What is the end goal for this bicycle trip?

Although the tricycle may have focused on making it down the driveway and back, bikes are designed for much longer trips.  In a similar respect, universities are designed for more than just retention and first year success.  Universities are expected to have overarching goals for students and to align students’ education with them.  Without these larger goals, universities become more like factories, putting a bunch of parts together (i.e. courses) and stamping it with a trademark (i.e. diploma).

Similarly, students need to know why they are going to college.  Many college dropouts become disillusioned with their end goal and with no new plan to guide them, leave.  On the other hand, if they discover some purpose for their career or discernment as to their calling, they are more likely to persist through tough times.

Several of the common longer-term goals that help colleges and students identify purpose include:

  • Graduate and be hired in a well-paying job
  • Go to graduate school to study a passion in more depth
  • Find an area of study that leads to a fulfilling job
  • Develop a desire for lifelong learning
  • Discover a passion for lifelong service and leadership
  • Find and build lifelong friendships

9. Navigating Crises – Bicycle brakes help us handle challenges

More often than most people realize, students experience at least one external crisis in college.  These challenges, like the death of a grandparent, a parent’s loss of job, or a major health crisis, can result in the journey through college stopping and/or slowing down.  In a bicycle, these external crises, like gravel, sharp turns, and pedestrians or cars, are dealt with using the brakes. These situations are often unforeseen and therefore, also, unplanned.  From a college’s perspective, helping students through these challenges require resources that reduce the negative impact of crises.

Some of the resources for helping student navigate crises, include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Appropriately staffed counseling center
  • Comprehensive array of health services
  • Campus pastors
  • Physical disability services
  • Learning accommodations
  • Financial aid resources

10. University Effectiveness – Gears allow for multiple speeds

Attending college is more than just showing up to class and taking tests.  There are a wide range of other campus resources that are often needed to ultimately graduate.  The effectiveness and efficiency of these processes can play a major factor in students’ success.  For example, colleges now offer course registration online and have learning management systems for faculty to more education more effective.  Universities are creating pathways for students to operate in their highest (or fastest) gear.  Colleges do this by understanding life through students’ eyes.  When this happens, universities discover efficiencies that can increase students’ ability to progress to graduation.  This factor might also be called an effective university culture.

Areas in a university that are often able to improve student persistence and graduation, include, but are not limited to:

  • Libraries (access to learning resources)
  • Housing (providing comfortable shelter)
  • Career Center (guiding job placement)
  • Dining (offering nutrition and food
  • Registrar (course registration)
  • Public Safety (police and security)
  • Information Technology (wireless, websites, classrooms)

In short, there are three important factors that lead to students’ success that are often most apparent beyond the first year of college.  Their impact may be more subtle than paying the bill or getting a good grade, but without these three factors, many students will neither be satisfied with their college experience nor graduate college.

Beyond the Big Three…  

factors that can increase or decrease the speed of the bike, reordered from above result in the acronym UNI

1.  University Effectiveness

2.  Navigating Crises

3.  Identifying Purpose

The acronym here is UNI 

which can be remembered by “we perform even better with a uniform on”.

If you have made it to this point, thank you.  I hope you have learned something new.

Overall, in this blog post (Part 2) and Part 1, I covered ten major factors that lead to student retention and graduation from college.  The picture below captures these ten factors and supposedly learning theory would indicated that by linking the student success factors to components of biking will make it easier for you to remember these ten factors.  Click on the image to enlarge it.

A reminder of the factors and their connection to biking

The first four were labelled pre-college factors and tied to the acronym SAFE, and you might say, what makes a student SAFE to go to college.  These four factors…

Our ability to pedal the distance – using our Self-management stills

Using our head – preparing to ride – Academic preparation

Help from family to not fall off bike – our Family’s investment in our success at the start

Our knowledge of the terrain – awareness of External challenges may face due to uncontrollable life situations

The next three factors were labelled The Big 3 Factors and tied to the acronym CAP, and you might say, you have to put your CAP to play ball.  These three factors included…

Using the two wheels to stay balanced – getting to know and building meaningful relationships with peers and faculty through Co-Curricular and Academic Engagement.

A third wheel needed to get us started – a solid plan to Pay for College

The last three factors were labelled Beyond the Big 3 and tied to the acronym UNI, and you might say, you play even better with a uniform on.  These three factors included…

Our bike’s ability to increase our speed – the University’s Effectiveness in operating

Using our brakes – Navigating Crises

Using our eyes – knowing where we are going – Identifying our Purpose

Posted in Informed Opinions | Leave a comment

Helping Students to Succeed in College by Learning to Ride a Bike – Part 1

An Analogy of College Student Success

There are thousands of articles and hundreds of books on the topic of college student success.  For the past 28 years, I have read many of them.  Many of them are built on solid research and strong theory.  Without them our students would not be nearly as successful as they have been.

What I have found wanting, however, is a simple way of explaining the key factors of student success.  For every article or book on this topic, there is a list, table, or flowchart for better understanding.  A nice summary of a number of these models can be found in Othman Aljohani’s 2016 article published in Higher Education Studies called, “A Comprehensive Review of the Major Studies and Theoretical Models on Student Retention in Higher Education.”

On the other hand, what you will find in this article is a simple framework for understanding the major factors impacting student success.  This piece is not written for scholarly publication, but practical use.  It has been created to help me and others explain, in a simple, yet thorough manner, the factors that we need to be aware of when trying to help our students succeed in college.

If you find yourself thinking of how I might change something in this post to better communicate important messages, please feel free to share with me.  

The first part focuses on the pre-college factors – factors that in most cases colleges have little to no influence on.  Once these four factors are shared, they will be combined with what I call The Big 3 to create an analogy of how riding a tricycle is like going through the first year of college.  Once the first-year success framework is covered in Part 1, in Part 2 (a second post) I will share three additional factors that are extremely helpful beyond the first year.  I hope you find the analogy helpful.  Thanks!

Four Major Pre-College Factors – Before anyone even gets on the tricycle

Too often colleges think that students are a moldable clay, able to be transformed from a high schooler to a lifelong leader in just a few years.  The reality is that students arrive in college with at least 18 or more full years of learning, development and growth.  These formational years often result in new student being a much closer to a  finished sculpture that is mostly hardened but missing the heat of the kiln to see what melts away.  There is only so much impact an educational institution can have on the challenges students have faced and will face.  Let’s not act like we have more of an influence than we realize, the sheer number of hours (over 150K) these incoming students have spent with family and friends pales in comparison the time they will interact with faculty, staff and students (~20K).  So what factor most impact students pre-college?

1. External Factors – What type of terrain will have to be crossed?

Unfortunately, college can be a more difficult place for some students.  This is typically through no fault of their own, but because of circumstances that make equality for all difficult to achieve.  Until most universities learn to be more understanding of student backgrounds, these external factors will persist.  However, one day I expect and hope that they will no longer hinder students’ success in college. 

The following students, and this is by no means a comprehensive list, often have a more difficult time succeeding in college.

  • First generation college students
  • Lower socio-economic status students (e.g. Pell grant recipients)
  • International students
  • Students of color at predominantly white institutions (PWIs)
  • Transfer students
  • Veterans of the armed forces
  • Non-traditional age students (i.e. over 25 years old)

2. Academic Preparation – Learning in advance about riding a tricycle

As most retention experts know, the easiest way to increase a college’s retention is to focus on who is admitted.  There is one major reason that Yale, MIT and Chicago have 99% first to second year retention – they are careful to admit students who have the greatest likelihood of succeeding there.  I’m not saying that they don’t have retention programs, but often I have found that it is the regional public and mid-level private institutions who have the most robust retention initiatives.  This is because they often have the greatest likelihood of influencing a student with below average academic preparation to succeed in college (and they have more resources than bottom-level and community colleges).  From a biking perspective, these factors can be compared to how a child is taught to ride a tricycle.  It is one thing to have a conversation with a child about how to ride a bike and let them see others riding the bike than to just plop a child down on a tricycle and expect them to figure it out.  Some of them will figure it out, but the extra effort to do so creates the inequity that makes academically prepared students more successful in college.  The factors below have an extremely strong correlation to student’s success in college.

  1. High school GPA and class rank
  2. Take and passing AP courses
  3. Enter with pre-college academic credit
  4. Earn “good” SAT/ACT scores
  5. Attend high schools w/ high college-going percentage
  6. Highest level of math completed
  7. Comfort with writing assignments and speaking to groups
  8. Good practices for note-taking, studying, and test-taking

Learn to ride a bicycle. You will not regret it if you live.Mark Twain

3. Family Support – Are there caring people available to help the rider when they face challenges?

Outside of the academic preparation factors just mentioned, one of the strongest predictors of college students’ enrollment in college is the success their parents experienced in college.  If both parents have a college degree, it is extremely likely that a high school graduate will enroll in college.  But beyond just the parents’ educational success is their investment in their child.  Did the parents (or family members or other potential mentors) spend significant time with their children?  Did they provide their children with out of school opportunities to learn?  We often mock the helicopter parents for hovering over their students’ decisions, but the fact is this approach is typically more successful than the opposite extreme of absent or laissez-faire parents.  Having a family members accessible when trying a tricycle for the first time is more important than many university educators realize.

The factors below, in addition to others, are often key in a college student’s success.

  • Parents’ level of education
  • Families’ investment in student’s involvement in clubs and organizations
  • Mentors – parents, extended family, high school teachers, coaches
  • Family assistance in exploring, selecting, and choosing college
  • Family support in completing financial aid documents and applying for loans
  • Family awareness of when to provide support vs. autonomy

4. Self-Management Skills – Can the cycler maintain the effort needed to pedal the distance?

The first semester of college will be lowest grade point average of the most students during their college experience.  There is a good reason for this…just as life is much more than earning money, college is about much more than just grades.  Success in life is often measured by many components of emotional intelligence in addition to self-discipline that are extremely difficult to directly assess.  Youth who have learned to take care of themselves and overcome challenges while growing up have often develop a resilience that many other youth do not have when entering college.  Similarly, before any child gets on a tricycle, there are elements of their will-power, self-care, and self-confidence that will guide them over the initial challenges (although driving on grass, see below, is never easy).

Some of these key self-management skills for college-going students, if not all humans, include, but are not limited to:

  • Grit (defined as combination of passion and perseverance)
  • Ability to manage time and set priorities
  • Discipline to get at least 7 hours of sleep/night
  • Able to maintain healthy eating behaviors
  • Awareness of personal strengths and areas of improvement
  • Able to delay short-term gratification to achieve a larger goal
  • Comfort with interpersonal differences & building relationships

“One thing that cycling has taught me is that if you can achieve something without a struggle, it is not going to be satisfying.”  Greg LeMond, 3 times Tour de France and 1st U.S. champion

Now that we have covered the major four pre-college factors to student success, we are going to transition to what I refer to as:

The Big Three Factors…

that all students and colleges must pay attention to for student success = the three wheels of a tricycle

I refer to them as the Big 3 Factors, because it is not just me who came up with them, but the shared experience of thousands of college student success professionals in the past several decades.  While I don’t think anyone has called them this before, at least not in publication, I am comfortable making a declarative statement in this case – there is a lot I don’t know and will never know, but this is one of the things I believe I know.

The reason they are called The Big Three Factors and the previous factors (or later factors) are not included is that these are the factors that 1) colleges have the most degree of control over and 2) that have the greatest return on investment in terms of student success.  For those of you who have studied retention, you will recognize that the first two are simply a highlighting of Vincent Tinto’s (the godfather of retention theory) two primary factors, academic and social integration, along with a third factor linked the the extreme cost increases in higher education over the past fifty years.  I selected a tricycle as the symbol for The Big Three because we know that without one of its wheels, it is not going to move forward.


5. First of the Big Three Factors – Academics 

                  (the handlebars and front wheel)

Of the big three factors, academics is the only one that is split in two.  If you don’t want to learn the two parts, don’t worry, remembering the importance of academics is acceptable.  However, the split is made because if the two parts are separated and emphasized individually, they will result in greater academic success.  These two aspects are labelled academic engagement and faculty interaction.  While they are closely linked, academic engagement often leads to faculty interaction in the same way as the handlebars of a tricycle leads to the front wheel’s turning.

5. a. Academic Engagement – Are the handlebars being steered in the right direction?

In order for students to meet their and the institution’s goals for their first year, they have to make wise choices about how to spend their time academically.  Thirty years ago, students were told to expect to spend three hours in class for every hour outside of class.  At some point this number decreased to two.  The reality the last decade is that students, on average, spend no more than one hour/week for each hour in class.  A number of studies have documented this but it doesn’t seem to be improving.

Faculty are not rewarded for how much their students read, study, and learn – but for their research, collegiality (typically rewarded in non-written documentation), and teaching evaluations.  These teaching evaluations are often called satisfaction scores because the only learning they can measure is self-reported learning.  So if you like the faculty member (which, interestingly happens more often with white male faculty) and you think you learned something, your faculty member is going to be eligible for their promotion when the time comes.  This being said, the reality of student success is that good grades are often highly correlated to behaviors that describe academic engagement.

Several of these important behaviors include, but are not limited to:

  • Maintaining 15 credits/semester
  • Using of academic support resources (tutoring, supplemental instruction, etc.)
  • Using campus course management system (time spent using it)
  • Attending class almost all the time
  • Knowing and regularly talking to an academic advisor
  • Enrolling in a first-year seminar class
  • Allocating at least two hours/week to study for each hour in class

5. b. Faculty Interaction – The Front Wheel Leads the Way

In 2014, Gallup and Purdue University undertook a study of over 30,000 former college students.  They questioned these students after they had graduate and working full-time.  They discovered that there were three factors that most differentiated the graduates who were successfully engaged and enjoying their work when compared to graduates who were not as engaged and less satisfied with their work.  All three of these factors had to do primarily with students’ interactions with faculty.  They are the first three items below.  The other items are also important to student success as they are indicative of the extent to which students are interacting with faculty.

  • Faculty are excited about what they are teaching
  • Faculty care about students as people
  • Faculty are serving as mentors
  • Percentage of students participating in undergraduate research
  • Similar ratio of faculty of color to students of color
  • Students to faculty ratio below 20:1
  • Much higher percentage of full-time vs. adjunct faculty

“Decades of research indicates that close interaction between faculty and students is one of the most important factors in student learning and development in college (Astin, 1993; Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, and Whitt, 2005). Indeed, frequent and meaningful student-faculty contact is a central characteristic of all high-impact educational practices (Kuh, 2008).”

6. Co-Curricular Engagement (leading to a Sense of Belonging) – One of the back wheels

One of the most overlooked core components of a college experience is the experience outside of class. The reality is that most students only spend 15 hours/week in class.  A week consists of 168 hours which means that students are in class only 9% of that time.  Even with a conservative estimate of students sleeping seven hours/night, this still leaves 63% of the week when students are awake and not in class.  This is 7X the amount of hours they are in class.

In addition, in an era in which almost 8 out of 10 high school graduates attempts some form of college, earning a degree is no longer a factor that does much to distinguish a student.  Recent generations of students have to do more to stand out from their peers.  Think about a resume – what percentage of your resume is taken up by listing a degree?

Third, students spend significantly more time with their peers in college than anyone else.  There is research, called peer effects, which demonstrates how powerful the influence of one’s peers can be on learning and development (we probably already knew this).  At more than one university I have worked there is one question we could ask a student that predicted their retention at the college more than any other question – Do you feel like you belong here?  Combining the answer to this question with first semester grades predicts retention and graduation better than anything I have studied.  Adding the third part of the Big 3 strengthens this prediction even more.

Some of the best ways of engaging in the co-curriculum include:

  • Living on campus, especially in a living-learning community
  • Joining and attending activities of student organizations
  • Going on a study abroad trip for a semester
  • Participating in semester-long internships
  • Playing intramurals and/or participating in fitness classes
  • Attending orientation and extended orientation programs
  • Attending music, theatre, and dance programs
  • Engaging in activities and groups that involve a diverse audience

“Through co-curricular participation, students frequently interact with peers who have similar interests, providing social integration into the college environment. As a result, involved students view their college years as a positive experience and feel they are a vital part of the university.”

7. Paying for College – The other back wheel

As previously mentioned, what could be argued is the oldest retention theory, developed by Vincent Tinto and first published in 1975, postulated that in a college environment, academic and social engagement were most important factors.  There is no mention of financial factors in Tinto’s model.  However, in today’s culture, college sticker prices far exceed levels in 1975; even when including inflation.  One study by Bloomberg in 2012 estimated the cost in college had increased 1,120% since 1978.  The Consumer Price Index increased just over one tenth of this amount over the same time.  The reality is that without the proper ways of paying for college, students can rarely just get a part-time job and work their way through college (as some older generations did).  Several of the factors that are indicative of a family’s ability to pay for college include:

  • Students’ and their family’s ability to take on debt
  • Students’ awareness of an appropriate amount of debt for their situation
  • Students with college savings funds
  • Students willing to work, but not more than 20 hours/week, while in college
  • Students who don’t complete the FAFSA each year
  • Students who are food insecure or homeless (steadily increasing in recent years)

“When tuition becomes unmanageable, it can have a direct impact on the college dropout rate. Fifty-five percent of students struggled to find the money to pay for college and 51% dropped out of college because of financial issues.” LendEdu, 2018

The Significant 7

We started with four pre-college factors that play a major role in student success.  We transitioned to the Big 3 Factors that are most influential to student success their first year in college.  Together, this gives us 7 factors most predictive, in my informed opinion, of student retention (first to second year).  To help in remembering, I am calling these The Significant 7 and they are visualized on our tricycle analogy below.

How to Remember the Significant 7

I hope this model makes sense to you.  These seven factors are the major determinants for student success in the first year of college.  One might argue that they could be broken in to different, less, or more categories.  The two acronyms below should improve the likelihood that you remember them.

4 Major Pre-College Factors

– needed before anyone gets on a bike

1.  Self-Management

2.  Academic Preparation

3.  Family Support

4.  External Factors

The acronym here is SAFE…

If you are not safe, you may not make it to college

The Big 3 Factors in College

– need all three wheels to move on a tricycle

1.  Co-Curricular Engagement

2.  Academics

               a.  Academic Engagement

               b. Faculty Interaction

3.  Paying for College

The acronym here is CAP

You put on your cap to play ball.

The next blog post will be titled Beyond the Big 3, and explain why we switch from a tricycle to a bicycle after the first year in college.  

Posted in Informed Opinions | Leave a comment

Infographic on “What Is Most Important at a University?”

Posted in Informed Opinions | Leave a comment

The Story of One University Family

Once upon a time, there was a large family who lived in College Town, U.S.A. The family loved each other very much and gathered together on regular occasions to watch football, celebrate a homecoming of older family members, and to say goodbye to graduates of the family. They often dressed in their family colors and sang their family song together at the end of their sporting events.

Unfortunately, as is the case with all families, they had a few disagreements. Thankfully, everyone in the family was respectful to each and conflicts rarely occurred, but when they did emerge, they could be quite troublesome. It just so happened that one of these arguments occurred at a family gathering where everyone was present. Each member of the family somehow had come to believe that they were the most important member of the family. They all had what they thought were convincing reasons for their beliefs.  It was decided that they each person should be allowed to share their perspective about why they were most important to the success of the family. This is the conversation that ensued…

Mrs. Mission: I would like to think that everyone knows that the reason our family exists is because of our mission. Without our mission, we would have no guiding direction. Our mission describes the essential purpose of our family better than any other statement. Our mission is quoted at more public gatherings of family member than any other. Our mission is what makes us great.

Granddad General Education: No doubt our mission is an important statement – but that is all it is – a statement. If we really want to talk about what is most important to our family we need to look at the heart of the family; our promise to young people when graduating from the family. If we can’t form them in to adults, we clearly are not doing our jobs. In other words, if we can’t deliver on our general education outcomes, outcomes that every student must have gained before graduating, then we have failed. Who can argue that learning critical thinking, communication, citizenship, etc. are not the ultimate goal of our family education?

Sir Strategic Plan: Yes, these general education outcomes are foundational to our family, but have you been reading or listening to anything coming from our family leadership recently? We have an entire marketing plan centered on our new strategic plan. The faculty meetings, the president’s messages, and even TV ads are all emphasizing our current strategic plan. And this plan is built on the emerging issues of the world that our family is capable of addressing.  It is clear to me that our strategic plan is the most important thing we should focus on for the next decade.

Mother Money: I hope all of you realize that everything you are talking about is impossible if we don’t have what is most essential to the survival of a family – money. Without money, we would not exist to live out our mission, educate our young people and achieve our strategic plan! I know we hate to say it, but without money, this entire dream of our family collapses.  If you disagree, just stop fundraising, spend the endowment, lower the tuition, increase our debt, and maximize our net price and see what happens.  We may last a year or two.

Aunt Admissions: Mother Money, you hit the nail on the head. Without money, the university ceases to exist. But who do you think pays that money? Did you know that over three quarters of our family’s annual income comes to us in the form of tuition from our students? Basically, if we can’t attract the right students to our family, we have no chance of making our budget and achieving our goals. If you disagree, let’s lower our total number of students, move to open admissions, and stop worrying about entering students’ credentials.

Sister Student Success: Thanks Aunt Admissions – it is nice to know we realize that without students we would not have a family. However, it is one thing to attract people to our family but it is much more important to keep people in our family! How can we be a family if we don’t end up helping our students succeed? For example, it is one thing to make it to the gates of Disney World, but much more to truly experience all that Disney has to offer. We must focus our efforts on keeping our students in the family before sending them out to be successful. If you disagree, let’s just stop worrying about our retention, graduation and job placement rates.  I don’t think the students or the public care that much about these measures – or do they?

Financial Aid Friend: Although she is young, Sister Student Success is absolutely correct; we need to do everything we can to retain and graduate our students. You should know that the most commonly mentioned reason for students leaving our family is finances. If students can’t afford to be in our family, they can’t stay with our family! Making membership in our family affordable is the most important thing we can do to help our students. Our students’ financial success is dependent on their loan amounts and total debt, the amount of financial aid that we meet, their social mobility, and their earnings post-graduation.  The cost of being in this family is no joke and it needs to be the focus of our attention.

Aged Accreditor: Can we just all agree that our students and their money are absolutely critical to our family? But they are not most important. I would like to shift your attention to something, without which, our family would not exist. Families that are not accredited shut-down at extremely high rates. Students, faculty, and the public are not interested in sending anyone to an unaccredited family. Students aren’t even eligible for federal financial aid if our family is not accredited! How could anything be more important than our accreditation…without it, our family ends.

Reverend Rankings: Come on, Aged Accreditor, you are so out of touch! Do you really think students spend that must time focusing on which families are accredited? Have you ever read news releases about accredited families?  Of course not! What gets people’s attention is where our family is ranked among other families each year. Our ranking is essential to our success in attracting the best students and educators and maintaining our reputation as a family of distinction. If we don’t rank well, we can forget succeeding at everything else. We have to think about our reputation and maintain our place in the top 75 families!

Amateur Athlete: OK, OK, OK. I know you all don’t think I deserve a place at this table; but hear me out. Our family’s athletics generate significantly more attention than our once-a-year rankings. Our football team attracts 50,000 people to College Town so that they can yell and celebrate our family! There is no single family event more popular than a football game. Furthermore, our basketball games attract thousands of students, faculty, staff, and people to many games per year. If you think athletics are not one of the most important aspects of our family, look at how much we spend on the athletics facilities and athlete academic success.  Take our family out of our athletic conference, offer losing teams, and stop investing in athletics facilities and see where we end up.

Father Faculty: I’ve had just about enough of Amateur Athlete’s hot air! Of course, most of us enjoy going to a family sporting event, but this by no means equates athletics with being the most important thing about our family. I am confident that I speak for almost all the faculty when I say that without us, there would be no athletics, no students, no family. Faculty are the people who make it all work. We educate our students to think and communicate, we play a transformative role in their lives, and we get them to graduation. We are, by far, the most expensive item in the university budget, due in large part to the essential role we play in the family’s success. If we don’t pay careful attention to faculty salaries, new full-time faculty positions, and smaller class sizes, our family won’t have anyone to teach our young ones.

Relative from Research: Thank you Father Faculty. It is about time someone let the rest of these folks know about the overriding importance of faculty to our family. I want to refine your argument just a little. When we look at how tenure-track faculty are evaluated and promoted in our family, it is primarily due to one criterion, their scholarship. Furthermore, we know that there is no way our family will ever maintain our research-focused Carnegie Classification without major increases in faculty research. We must continue to increase our research expenditures and expand our research productivity.  We need more research support, improved labs, and lighter teaching loads to succeed.

Cousin Community: I think it is about time that the last person to speak up bring you all to your senses. Does anyone here know what almost all family members say is the most important thing in our family?  Our people!  And our people become a part of our family by learning about our family history and family traditions.  Go on a campus tour and listen to the many special elements of our family culture.  Without these traditions, this history, this community, our family would not a place anyone wants to be.

Mrs. Mission: So what do we do now? We have heard from each member of the family and now we have to decide who is the most important member of our family.

Cousin Community: We each think that we know what the essence of Baylor is and yet we only know that part of Baylor with which we come in contact. I think we need to learn to talk to each other to understand the other important parts of our family and only then can we accurately describe who we are.

Granddad of General Education: I remember when I was a little boy, and my parents, William & Mary, from the second oldest family in the U.S., told me a story…

Once upon a time, there was once a man whose body parts could speak. They, too, were arguing about which part was most important. One by one, they each made their arguments for why the man would not survive if they were removed.  Their arguments were persuasive, and it soon became clear that without each of them the man would die. Each of the parts were indispensable: the heart, brain, lungs, liver, kidneys, skeleton, stomach, skin, pancreas, intestines. And so the man and his body parts came to realize that not one of them was more important than the other, but that all of them were essential to the man’s survival and success. Sister Student Success: What a great story, Granddad General Ed. I think I know what you are trying to say. Every one of us is important to the family. We each play a part in the success of our family. If we lose any one of us, we are going to find it hard to go forward.

I think it is time that recognize we need to better understand each other so that our entire family not only survives, but thrives going forward.

The End

Credits: These were the real names of the family members considered most important to higher education, introduced in order of appearance:

  1. Mrs University                                            Mission Statement
  2. Granddad General Education                  General Education Outcomes
  3. Sir Strategic Plan                                        Institutional Strategic Plan
  4. Mother Money                                            University Revenue Streams
  5. Aunt Admissions                                        University Admissions
  6. Sister Student Success                               Student Success Departments
  7. Financial Aid Friend                                  Institutional Financial Aid
  8. Aged Accreditator                                       Regional Accreditation
  9. Reverend Rankings                                    US New and other institutional rankings
  10. Father Faculty                                             The Faculty
  11. Relative from Research                             Research Production
  12. Amateur Athlete                                         College Sports
  13. Cousin Community                                    University Culture

Reader Reflection: So what do you think?

Are all these key parts of a university equally important to you or are some more important than others?

If you believe some of these factors are more important than others, do you think all the members of the university will agree with you?

If you were the president of your institution, and expected to honor and support these important critical components of a university, how would you prioritize your time?  (It is not easy, is it?)

Which of these components do you understand the least and might you take some time to learn more about?

The next time someone tells you what is most important at a university, what questions will you ask them to better explore their thoughts?

Posted in Informed Opinions | 1 Comment


The son of a college professor and librarian, I spent nine years earning three university degrees (biology, counseling, higher education).  I have studied or worked at nine universities over the past 32 years.  I enjoy reading about higher education and would like to share some of my thoughts on the topic with interested readers.  I invite you to read and share your own thoughts.  Thanks for joining me on this journey!

Posted in Informed Opinions | 1 Comment