07/09/2013 10:24 am ET Updated Sep 08, 2013

It Matters Whether Our Students Succeed

It matters to colleges and universities whether students succeed.

It didn't always, though.

Of course, we wished our students well. It gave us no pleasure to see them fail or drop out, but they're doing so did not materially affect us. We lost their tuition, but we managed to weather that consequence without much consternation. The failure of our students sometimes even validated what we thought about our academic rigor. "Look to the right of you. Look to the left of you," our deans would say to new students. The fact that one out of three students would not succeed proved that we had high standards. Their failure was a testimony to our success at keeping the bar elevated.

Over the past generation though, the world has changed around us. Popular college rankings, such as U.S. News & World Report, have made retention statistics an important measure of institutional quality. State higher education appropriations increasingly reward not simply enrollment success, but graduation success. In an environment where institutional reputations and even funding are affected by retention and graduation rates, it matters whether or not our students succeed, not simply to them, but to us.

Part of my role as a state university president is to help faculty and staff at my institution understand how student success matters to the institution. There are still a few holdouts who define their jobs, whether as faculty or as staff, without reference to the success of students. By and large though, I am privileged to work at an institution where our faculty and staff get it. They understand the consequences of low retention and graduation rates, for both our students and our institution. They understand that we can make a difference in the success of our students without compromising academic rigor, and they are willing partners in the exciting work of discovering new ways to make that difference.

A fundamental redesign of our developmental courses was probably the first big eye-opener for us. We eliminated non-credit developmental courses and put students with developmental deficiencies into credit-bearing courses with additional required tutoring sessions. The result? An astonishing increase in students completing courses for credit. These successes were not a product of diminished rigor. If anything, we raised the bar by requiring students with developmental deficiencies to attend additional tutoring sessions, and students rose to meet the new challenge.

Since then, we have encouraged faculty to think about new ways of teaching their courses to improve student learning and success and have seen many of them respond with course redesigns. At the same time, we experimented with structural changes, such as cohort scheduling, that offer the promise of helping more of our students succeed. This fall, we plan to pilot a program with InsideTrack to provide individualized coaching to many of our freshmen students.

These and other changes are the practical results of new axioms at work on our campus.
These axioms -- that student success matters and that we can make a difference in the success of our students without lowering academic standards -- represent a kind of Copernican revolution in higher education. I'm happy to say that the revolution is alive and well on our campus.