02/13/2013 05:26 pm ET Updated Apr 15, 2013

Student Success: No Magic Involved, a Graduation-Oriented Culture

While student access remains an important national goal, the knowledge-based economy makes completion of postsecondary education critical. I noted in an earlier post that Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workplace estimates that two-thirds of the new and replacement jobs by 2018 will require a postsecondary degree or certificate and that, at current rates, we will fall three million short of being able to fill them. But despite the many opportunities and flexibility in ways to earn a degree for students, our overall graduation rates remain below our goals and expectations; but not at every institution.

Several recent studies and reports focused on ways to improve completion rates. All are carefully done, and one deserves special attention because it focuses on institutions with understandable reasons to make excuses for lower than average completion rates, yet found ways to overcome the challenges and succeed.

From 2008 to 2010, the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) conducted a study of fifteen exemplary regional public universities serving a comparatively high percentage of students from low income families, and students with average or below scores on national college aptitude exams. But the six-year graduation rates were near the national average. The study revealed no particular magic formula to success. Instead, each institution had what the researchers termed "a graduation-oriented culture" with two components: "attentive leadership" and "focus on the individual student."

Sound fundamentals practiced with discipline often are a key to success. For example, many view John Wooden, long time coach of the UCLA men's basketball team, as the most successful coach ever, based on his 10 NCAA championships including seven in a row from 1967 to 1973. When he was nearing retirement, a young man reputedly approached him at the annual NCAA coach's convention and asked if Wooden would teach him the tricks of the trade. Wooden replied, "Son, basketball is a game of dribbling, passing, and shooting; the tricks are easy." And so it appears to be with improving student success and institutional graduation rates.

Institutions that display a "graduation-oriented culture" share some common elements of their environments, and similar strategies. Organizational culture generally is defined as an amalgam of values, customs, traditions, and beliefs that shape how people behave. No one individual can demand a particular culture; cultures are established and maintained by people, and generally it takes a long time. While a culture is difficult to measure, one often can almost feel its existence. This was true at the colleges and universities featured in the SREB study.

What the SREB researchers called a "graduation-oriented culture" has two major components: "attentive leadership" and "focus on the individual student." For the rest of this post, I'll concentrate on attentive leadership and use the next to share some effective ways of ensuring focus on the individual student.

Attentive leadership describes an institution-wide pervasive commitment to student success that appears in virtually all major communications with students and employees and drives policy decisions. If an issue arises that requires resolution, the standard applied is "how will this impact on student success?" While individual "champion" leaders often are present in these institutions, more often, there are many, as leadership behavior is apparent and extensive across all levels and programs.

The president needs to emphasize its importance in every message. For example, at one institution cited in the SREB study, the then-new president's first words to the incoming class let everyone know his expectation: "If you are not here with the goal of graduating in four years, you need to go someplace else!" The registrar needs to ensure that students can enroll in the classes they need when they need them. Academic advisors can play a huge role both in getting students on the right track and then keeping them there. Residence advisors need to be on the watch for signs of troubled students. Faculty members need to determine how best to communicate and inspire while making it clear that they are there to help -- not block -- student progress. Vice presidents and deans need to find ways to get faculty and staff to work together for an efficient and friendly student experience. Alumni need to serve as role models and facilitators for students trying to solve the puzzle of post-graduation employment. Support staff members need to facilitate as students try to negotiate necessary processes and procedures. And members of the custodial staff need to understand that clean hallways and tidy grounds can play an important part in helping students feel pride in their campus "home." Indeed, there is a role for everyone to play including, of course, the students themselves. Ultimately, they have to step up to the challenges, and by so doing, show other students that timely graduation is possible. Indeed, it is common for students to thank other students for serving as role models.

In summary, the key to attentive leadership is not charisma or flamboyance, but rather, consistency. Verbal and behavioral messages must remain the same from every department and person in the institution. Everyone must know that timely graduation is the goal and it is an expectation. This is more easily done with traditional students who attend full-time, but the principles apply to part-time adult students with uncertain and longer time horizons for graduation.

At Saint Leo University, one illustration of how we try to promote attentive leadership is through a theme first encountered by one of our people while visiting California State University, Long Beach: "graduation begins today." It helps communicate our belief that promoting timely graduation is everyone's business and all have a duty to make the theme come to life.

My next post will address the second key element to promotion of student success as identified in the SREB study: focus on the individual student.