By Lorenzo Esters, Vice President, Philanthropy, USA Funds
If you had $325,000 and three years to improve the success of students and the value of a college education, what would you do?
USA Funds® posed that question to a group of minority-serving institutions through a competitive grant process, selecting seven of the schools for the award based on their responses. The MSI Measuring College Value initiative aims to help institutions more effectively use data to help students stay on track to completion and successfully navigate into rewarding careers.
Over the last few months, I’ve had the pleasure of joining project consultants Randy Swing and Yael Kidron in meeting with teams from each of the institutions. We’ve considered their answers to that all-important question as they begin their work on improving college and career success for students.
Here’s one lesson we quickly learned: Higher education professionals value every student with whom they work. The hope for 100 percent success for all students drives many dedicated educators every day. As one individual put it, “I’m proud to say that I have never given up on any student.”
But there are times that require triage and choices to ensure the best outcome for the most individuals.
Saving all students
One of the difficult decisions the seven grantee institutions face is foundational to any college or university wishing to improve student success: Do you focus on the students who are most at risk, or focus on students who are closest to being successful and most immediately able to benefit from support? There are valid reasons to pursue either option.
It was clear that all seven schools wanted to “save” all students. One philosophy is that “a rising tide raises all boats,” meaning that bringing up the lowest-achieving students will benefit everyone. Since peer-to-peer relationships have a huge impact, it is reasonable to expect that success, motivation and pride can sweep through an entire organization when the least likely to succeed beat the odds that are against them.
The catch is that helping the most at-risk student often requires intense focus and considerable resources — and yet carries significant potential of still being too little to change the outcome.
Alternatively, many management experts suggest that the fastest way to “move the needle” on organizational achievement is to focus on the areas of “near-success,” where removing small barriers boosts individuals over the success line.
Using fewer resources to move students to success is rewarding — but taking this route comes at the cost of knowing that it leaves the most at-risk students behind.
Targeting the assistance
Another observation from our visits with the seven grantees was the challenge of narrowing the scope of any targeted intervention. All students are different. And different populations require different interventions and support systems.
For example, focusing on all first-time students may be too broad of a focus. But a decision to focus specifically on first-time-in-college, first-generation, low-income students may yield findings and interventions that boost the success of that particular population of students. An institution then could choose another population on which to focus. The college or university could develop interventions based on what it learns through data related to that population.
The decision about how to best use limited resources is the kind of choice that tests institutional mission and resolve. The right choice is the one that fits an institution’s culture and mores, and it must come from within the institution.
Experience, however, suggests that there is one wrong approach to using data to promote college and career success: failing to be intentional and strategic. Action that isn’t intentional and strategic risks the desired outcomes by spreading resources too thinly. Using data and professional knowledge in decision making begins with being intentional about your target issue and target cohort of students.
The takeaway: In advancing college completion and career readiness, be bold, be intentional, and be focused.
Enhancing college value
The seven minority-serving institutions in this program are well-positioned to set the standard for enhancing college value.
Over the next few months, they will finalize their action plans by establishing the populations of students on which they’ll focus, and the steps to take to improve college value. In the subsequent two years of the initiative, they will work with faculty, staff, students and employers to implement practices and policies and revise curricula in an effort to enhance the career readiness of students.