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The Role of Change Management in Student Success


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The only constant is change, continuing change, inevitable change that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.”
– Isaac Asimov

Why is it that we know more about student learning, persistence, engagement, and success than ever before, yet persistence and graduation numbers have stayed stagnant since 1970? In fact, research by Bound, Lovenheim, and Turner (2010) shows while enrollments increased significantly over the past 45 years, degree completion has not.

As a field, higher education continues to report better ways to serve increasingly diverse student populations. Technology tools bring more efficiency to administrative services and promises to improve student learning and support services. The economic shifts demand increasing numbers of college degrees and certificates. Meanwhile, higher education is being held to more accountability and transparency in outcomes and results. Foundations, states, and local institution have invested in improved curriculum, use of technology, and student services. While campuses have increased access to college education, there have not been the same advances in student persistence and completion.

Responding to Changes

We can learn from studies in agriculture that focused on how individual farmers dealt with new ideas coming from Land Grant Universities. Research in the early 60’s generated considerable insight into new farming techniques to improve farm yields. What were the best ways these new ideas could be transmitted for optimal acceptance and adoption? Everett Rogers developed a Theory of Diffusion of Innovation where he identified five types of human responses to change. Rogers published this in 1962, and it is now in its 5th edition. The categories of responses include: innovators, early adopters, early majority, majority, and laggards.

Theory of Diffusion of Responsibility Whiteboard

It’s important to understand that people approach, accept, act, and sustain new ideas, behaviors and practices in far different ways. We can look to the research to identify specific ways to approach each type of person for the most successful adoption of change.

What Business Management Can Teach Us

We can learn from the change management field, which evolved from business management. Change management studies the impact of change on organizations; focusing on companies dealing with dramatic change. In their work, researchers found top-down management was not dealing with the changes effectively, and even some of the most successful companies were failing to anticipate and sustain new ideas and innovations. Clayton Christianson is well known for his work on why good companies fail at new ideas.

How can higher education build a more strategic approach to innovation by gaining a deeper understanding of how organizations successfully respond to change?

Understanding Change Management

Let’s start at the beginning with a definition of change management. Change management is essentially the field that informs how people, organizations and processes respond to change. In 1982, Daryl Connor, author of Managing at the Speed of Change coined the following definition:

Change management is a set of principles, techniques, and prescriptions applied to the human aspects of executing major change initiatives in organizational settings. Change management becomes a systematic approach to how individuals, teams and organizations respond to new initiatives including re-direction of resources, process, budget allocation and long range planning.

When a new idea, initiative, product or process is considered, how does it come to a university or college campus? Is it a top-down initiative, a federal, state or accreditation mandate? Is it based on research that indicates what benefits the idea brings to the organization, the faculty and staff, and the students? What sense of urgency is created around the initiative?

Where some universities and colleges struggle with change management is in translating good intentions to sustainable actions.

The DIAL Framework

Sustained focus is the key to successful change. Mark Milliron has described this focus in the DIAL model where purposeful effort is focused on data, insights, action and learning.

Dial Model Whiteboard

Today, higher education leaders can be faced with more data than they believe they can strategically access or use. Bringing focus to what data are needed to improve student success adds the first important component in effective, sustainable change management. What data do campuses have, what don’t they have, what can they do to fill the data gaps, and who can access and use the data? They must ascertain what tools and systems strengthen the access and use of data to improve student success.

After accessing the data, they need to then work on understanding what the data tell them about student success. Bringing insight to the conversation is the next level to successful change. Good starting questions include: What programs, policies, and initiatives are supporting success? What barriers are in the systems that affect student success? What predictors and patterns are evident for students who are most successful? These insights can then lead to understanding what courses, programs, policies, and initiatives are most likely to contribute to success, and where change can be the most beneficial.

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”
– Charles Darwin

All the data and insights will only result in good intentions if they are not brought to powerful action. Campuses then must invest philosophically, programmatically, and financially in people and tools to support the right actions, validating on each campus a commitment to taking change management beyond intention to action.

The fourth and final piece of this is learning from the data, insights, and actions taken. This is where universities and colleges use change management to maximize student success. This includes understanding that the process is ongoing, and should be assessed for continuous opportunities to improve. The campuses that achieve the most sustained change do so by never being fully satisfied with the results, and always striving to do better for students.


Bound, Lovenheim and Turner (2010). Increasing Time to Baccalaureate Degree in the United States.

Boston University School of Public Health. Behavioral Change Models.

Conner, Darryl. (1982) Managing at the Speed of Change. Random House, New York.

Rogers, Everett M. (1995) Diffusion of Innovation, Fourth Edition. The Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster, Inc.

Top Banner Photo: Massive Change by Sookie used by permission CreativeCommons BY-2.0.

Dr. Linda Baer

Dr. Linda Baer is a consultant with Civitas Learning. She has served more than thirty years in numerous executive level positions in higher education. She was the interim vice president for Academic Affairs at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Previously, Dr. Baer served as a Senior Program Consultant in Post-secondary Success with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and as Senior Vice Chancellor of Academic and Student Affairs in the Minnesota State College and University System. She was Senior Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs and Interim President at Bemidji State University. Dr. Baer presents nationally on academic innovations, educational transformation, the development of alliances and partnerships, the campus of the future, shared leadership and building organizational capacity in analytics.

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