student puzzle

The Student Success Challenge: Where to Start


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The puzzle of student success is complex and multi-faceted. If success for students were solved by single ‘out of the box’ solutions, companies like Civitas Learning would not need to exist; every college president would know what strategies to employ on her campus, and colleges would deploy exactly the correct resources to support every struggling student. Of course, student success is complex and the needs of one learner on his campus may differ greatly from the needs of another learner on hers. Equally, the capacity of a given campus to provide supports, and the means through which that campus delivers on whatever promises it has made to students, will vary.

Due to the distinct nature of every campus environment, Civitas Learning approaches data analytics for our partners by building unique predictive models based exclusively from campus-specific data. When we say we build a model for ‘campus X’ we actually build many models due to the data segmentation and clustering techniques we utilize. Our modeling power provides our partners pinpoint accuracy when exploring persistence risk characteristics around any particular group of students. Despite our ability to, with great accuracy, predict student departure risk, many of our partners struggle wondering ‘who’ should receive campus resources, and ‘what’ the institution should focus upon in allocating such resources.

Resource Allocation
cover of study about sophomore success

In a recent piece I co-authored on sophomore successi, I argue that, given the scarcity of new resources in higher education, institutional initiatives for success require a reallocation of existing resources. Administrators and faculty are facing an increasing need to shift dollars from one program to another. Understanding the efficacy of one program over another is difficult; Civitas Learning assists its clients in understanding the relationship between any given initiative and the pattern of student persistence for those who received benefit from the initiative.

cover handbook of strategic enrollment

The ‘what next’ question regarding resource reallocation and student success initiative prioritization is not always imminently clear. In her chapter ‘Models of Student Retention and Persistence’ in the Handbook of Strategic Enrollment Management (Jossey-Bass, 2014)ii, Amy Hirschy advocates that the adoption of a conceptual framework for student success can guide administrators in building initiatives for student success on campus. I believe Dr. Hirschy is on to something key here that many administrators miss when considering a ‘next step’ in addressing student departure.

Frameworks for Student Success
cover vince tinto book

Seminal student departure theorist Vincent Tintoiii also makes a case for an adoption of a theoretical framework in order to inform decisions made by an institution to positively impact student success. Leadership theorists assert that theories can help build unity across groups of divergent interest or viewpoints, and may serve to address some of the “siloization” experienced on campus surrounding the successful implementation of student success initiatives. Hirschy describes the varying nature of theoretical frameworks; some frameworks are categorized as Grand with the ability to generalize large concepts that can be “universally applied to all types of organizations throughout societies,” while others are Middle-Range and Low-Range which describes their more specified focus on particular contexts (e.g., community colleges) or populations (e.g., degree-completing part-time learners).

Focusing Decision Making

Whatever the context for the given theoretical framework, adopting a framework around student success for a given college can help provide guardrails around what is ‘within focus’ for campus success initiatives, and what will not be in focus; a theoretical framework becomes a decision-making guide. With increasingly stringent financial resources available, administrators and faculty in higher education should employ a framework that aids decision-making and assessment of existing and new initiatives.

Choosing a theoretical framework requires knowledge of the many frameworks for student success that exist in the higher education literature. Although the frameworks exist at the theoretical level, utilizing professional expertise and institutional knowledge allows administrators to utilize aspects of the adopted framework, aligning the frameworks with strategic mission/direction of the organization, and positioning initiatives to further exploit the salient characteristics that already uniquely define student success on campus. Hirschy advocates that professional judgment is a key determination in choosing a theoretical lens. She asserts that contextualizing a given model an institution will employ, empirically supporting the framework for the organization, and assessing which aspects of the framework should be adopted are key to framework selection.

Mindset as a Framework

 For the purposes of illustration, I want to offer the following thought progression on how the adoption of a framework could inform next steps for any Civitas partner:

carol dweck book

Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindsetiv provides a compelling framework for student success. Dweck’s growth mindset supposes that human intelligence is not a fixed asset, but is rather developable with intentionality and effort over time. College students drawing upon a growth mindset have been shown to be more resilient through difficult academic circumstances. Choosing growth mindset as a theoretical framework around which to build support services for struggling students first requires a starting point. Measuring mindset in students is quite simple given a quick seven-item survey; however most campuses are not currently collecting mindset information from students. Even in the absence of student-level mindset data, an intervention can be designed that is rooted in a mindset framework.

In this image Nigel Holmes shows the differences in a fixed vs. growth mindset. (
In this image Nigel Holmes shows the differences in a fixed vs. growth mindset. (

Prior to mid-term exams, student persistence predictions could be downloaded from Illume for all active students, or pushed as a campaign in to Inspire for Advisors. Based upon the prediction for each student, preparing a template script rooted in a growth mindset framework is sent reminding students of all the services available for success at the college. Given the persistence prediction for each student, the templates should be adjusted specifically focusing on ways to either encourage students toward a growth mindset (e.g., college is certainly difficult, ensuring you are putting in enough time of studying will assist you toward the goals you have set for yourself in your program and your college is here to help you along the way), or to encourage students with growth mindset based ideals (e.g., your hard work and diligence in your studies can pay dividends as we enter midterm exams, keep up the hard work and remember there are resources here at the college to help). Ensuring any student-facing support team members at the college understood the growth mindset framework would ensure consistency of the student experience should he or she reach out for tutoring supports, advising, or other campus resources.

Following the midterm exam period, given LMS grades post midterms, another list of student persistence predictions could then be surfaced as a means of following up. Students who scored below the course mean on midterms could receive an email encouraging them to access campus resources, reminding them that it may not be too late in the term to turn their grade around, and encouraging them to work hard to finish strong. Students who scored above the mean could be sent encouragement about their academic performance with a reminder that diligent hard work through the remainder of the term would help them finish well and ensure preparedness for final exams. These are two examples of scalable student-level interventions, or ‘nudges,’ that can be measured for efficacy, over time, in Illume Impact.

A framework like mindset can inform both the importance of new data collection required to determine student intervention, could inform interventions themselves, and can guide how an organization might shift its existing programming on student success to align with the principles outlined by the body of literature on mindset.

Frameworks for Student Success

Selection of the theoretical framework will determine not only selection of students for action/intervention but it impacts the interventions themselves. A framework relying on traditional definitions of “at-risk” students may not sufficiently align intervention resources for the greatest impact.

Choosing actions and next steps to move the needle on student success can be daunting. Selecting a framework that aligns with institutional goals is a key way to catalyze a team and an organization toward action.

i     Young, D. G., Schreiner, L. A., & McIntosh, E. J. (2015). Investigating sophomore student success: The National Survey of Sophomore-Year Initiatives and the Sophomore Experiences Survey – 2014 (Research Report No. 6). Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience & Students in Transition.

ii     Hirschy, A. S. (2014). Models of student retention and persistence. In D. Hossler & B. Bontrager (Eds.), Handbook of Strategic Enrollment Management (268-288). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

iii     Tinto, V. (2012). Completing College:Rethinking Institutional Action. University of Chicago Press.

iv     Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.


Dr. Eric McIntosh

Eric McIntosh is the research director for Civitas Learning. With a professional background in student affairs, he has worked for institutions of varying types and sizes understanding the intersection of students’ academic journeys and lives. An active researcher, Eric’s research interests include access issues in higher education, spirituality in higher education, transfer student integration, student thriving, and student success. Since 2007, Eric has been involved in research on student thriving; a research initiative of the Doctoral Programs in Higher Education at Azusa Pacific University.

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