3 Ways Higher Ed is Wasting a Good Crisis

Is Higher Ed Wasting a Good Crisis?

Blog Scaling Student Success

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Insights from The American Council on Education’s March 2022 Annual Meeting

As Covid restrictions lift and campuses across the country return to seated courses, conferences find their place again in our busy schedules. The American Council on Education’s annual meeting (ACE) in San Diego last month was my first foray back into in-person events. What surprised me most was how much hadn’t changed and how the conversations about student success seemed to pick up where we left off in 2019. 

Winston Churchill once offered, “never let a good crisis go to waste.” as an explanation for the seemingly strange alliances that resulted after World War II in the formation of the United Nations. 

As HEERF and other temporary funding sources disappear, many institutions will be left no better equipped to face future challenges. The collective sigh of relief among senior leaders reveals three ways they’re at risk of wasting this most recent crisis.

1. Abandoning Online “Learning”

When every institution shifted modalities practically overnight during the pandemic, it was not “online learning.” It was an abrupt pivot to a different platform. Many have conflated this pivot to virtual learning with online learning, unfairly giving the modality a bad name and reinforcing negative assumptions. 

Just because it’s challenging to do online learning well doesn’t mean it’s not possible or desirable. Yes, there is a hunger for meaningful face-to-face interaction. However, the convenience, accessibility, and potential for increased student engagement possible online will only become more critical to student success, not less. Instead, many institutions hurry back to the normalcy of seated courses, abandoning any effort to get better at other modalities. 

This will be a missed opportunity for any institution that doesn’t use the past two years to accelerate and amplify efforts to improve online learning. Whether they are “traditional” or not, delivering a mix of modalities for both learning and students services, leveraging the various benefits of synchronous and asynchronous when and where each makes sense, benefits all students.

2. Defining Destiny by Demographics

Despite some acknowledgment that demographics are not destiny, the discourse hasn’t evolved as much as it should have by now. Demographics are a narrow snapshot of a student that doesn’t equate to behavior, life experience, or outcomes. They might be initially predictive, but the value of demographic data quickly falls apart once classes get underway. 

Allocating resources or support based on demographics perpetuates biases and stereotypes. Not all students of color are low-income or first-generation. Many 18-year-old first-year students work and have serious family responsibilities. 40-year-old millennials with master’s degrees pursue certificate credentials at local community colleges. Why are we still conflating demographics with needs and tailoring support without considering individual behavior, preferences, or circumstances?

These cookie-cutter approaches discourage help-seeking behavior and limit our understanding of the real drivers of success or distress. Especially with the increased use of technology and the many changes to student behavior and preferences, the data footprint each student creates today looks different than it did two years ago, a trend that will continue despite starting to put Covid in the rearview mirror.

3. Assuming What Worked Over There Will Work Here

Most institutions still lack the means to understand what is and isn’t working for their students at any given moment. Institutions continue to invest in programs that feel like they’re working and assume what once worked still does. The mechanisms that enable real-time granular analysis certainly exist, but most are woefully behind in their ability to turn such insights into action

For example, “early alert” systems rely on faculty manually flagging a student for intervention – by the time the faculty notices an issue and bothers to raise a red flag, it’s already too late! This might feel like it’s working and keeps student support personnel busy responding to concerns, but few know how or if these approaches truly change the outcome.

Another example is “predictive” analytics, which still relies heavily on demographics or doesn’t consider individual student trends or context. Many institutions invest heavily in building new programs based on what they see peers doing. These programs may or may not make a difference for their students or implement predictive models based on a completely different situation. 

In addition to not knowing whether these approaches work, some of these outdated, cookie-cutter interventions can cause harm (e.g., automated alerts). We can’t afford the wasted resources and delayed student impact of not knowing what is or isn’t working and must look at efficacy in the dynamic context of each institution.

Let’s Use This Crisis to Build a Better Student Experience

I know it’s tempting to take a sigh of relief and rush back with open arms to the way things were. But the events of the last years have fundamentally changed students. To meet their evolving needs institutions must move beyond best practices and benchmarks of the past. To deliver a more accessible and supportive college experience leaders need the ability to tune in to the current behaviors, preferences, and circumstances of their particular students and adapt programs and policies to match.

Cat Parkay

Cat Parkay is a Regional Vice President at Civitas Learning where she helps institutions evaluate, design, and implement solutions that reliably improve student outcomes. Her 15+ years of higher ed experience include strategic enrollment management at a public R1, building yield and retention programs that delivered double-digit gains, speaking as a guest lecturer and keynote at institutions domestic and abroad, and leveraging the best in behavior and data science to customize student support at scale. Prior to joining Civitas in 2021, she served as the Director of Research at InsideTrack, consulted for a major urban K-12 school district, and created international partnerships focused on bringing student-centered experiential learning to SE Asia.

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