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There has been a significant amount of change in the higher education industry over the past decade, including the shift in institutional focus from access to success and a new emphasis on student outcomes.

The difficult truth is that for those who start university or college, it is a coin toss whether they will get that critically important degree. There are of course regional differences in completion, though even of those students that do graduate, it is questionable whether that degree is suitable for the employment to be obtained.

Consequently, institutions are being forced to develop sustainable student success strategies to ensure that students graduate on time, with an affordable, meaningful degree or credential.  In support of these strategies, institutions must leverage more data, look toward a student success solution to analyze that data, and initiate interventions to help keep students on track.

Students are struggling to finish what they start

Although enrollment increases year on year, the ability to retain students is a costly and problematic issue.  Recent data from the UK's Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) revealed that the proportion of UK students dropping out of higher education before their second year increased for the second year in a row. The first-year dropout rate for students aged under 21 in 2014–15 was 6.2%, an increase on the figure for 2013–14, which was 6%. Although the rates have not reached the highs of the 1990s, when dropout rates peaked at almost 8%, any increase is of concern to institutions.

In the US, the issues of retention and timely degree completion are worse.  The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported that only 59% of students completed a bachelor’s degree by 2015 at the same 4-year degree granting institution where they started in 2009.

All is at stake for institutions

Previously, responsibility for outcomes and retention rested primarily with the student rather than the institution.  However, as costs have risen and the link between an educated workforce and economic development has tightened, governments now hold institutions directly accountable by tying funding to student success.  Regardless of these changes, not all institutions are set up to manage student success with a coherent approach across disciplines that begins at the point at which the student settles on a course, and continues through to graduation.

Of course, there is no universal answer to student success and retention problems; different student cohorts require different kinds of outreach, organizational models, and technology solutions. However, all institutions should aim to build a structure for collaboration between units on campus to increase student success.  For example, academic advising should enable connections between students and the institution, and have access to up-to-date data to support students.

Additionally, institutions should look to technology companies with experience in providing advising, early warning, and intervention system capabilities to help them understand what is and is not possible, and move toward the realization of their strategic goals.

It’s time to use – or make better use of – a student success solution

Technology companies are making significant investments in the quality and capabilities of their solutions, and as institutions purchase these, it is critically important for institutions to think about what truly makes for a robust student success solution.  There is a significant difference between an analytics tool and a true student success solution.

It is not just about the collection and analysis of data, but also whether that data and analysis prompts the end user to do something to help students, and whether there are a range of channels through which support can be provided.