student success center

The Ultimate Guide to Managing Student Success Centers

What Is A Student Success Center And Why Does It Matter?

Student success centres are one of the most important departments in higher education institutions. Students rely on these departments to receive study and skills training that they may not receive within the classroom. 

Academic success centers, learning commons, and academic resource centers are all terms commonly used when referring to what this article calls, “student success centers”. There are several departments often held within an SSC, and these will differ between institutions. While this article may describe services that your institution has decided to not carry under the SSC umbrella, this article is an extensive guide to the operation, management, and tactics for the services that are designed to strengthen and retain students.

Retention is a key role of a student success center. Today, universities and colleges are seeing unprecedented reductions in enrollment. With fewer students, this represents a loss of revenue not only for the year the reduction happened, but the four years in which a student would have otherwise been expected to pay tuition. This can have devastating effects on the financials of the institution. Therefore, it is critical for schools to retain the students they do have, and not lose their revenue to attrition. However, as of 2018, the dropout rate in the United States was 40%, which has worsened since the pandemic. Dropouts can have a disastrous impact on schools, already spiralling from gaining fewer students year over year. This is why the student success center is of enormous importance. These centers are designed to support and guide students throughout their programs so that they graduate.

Student success centers are often made up of multiple departments. These departments are specialized in offering students support in writing, reading, tutoring, and advising- which are skills not often directly addressed within the classroom, but are nonetheless integral to the success of the student. Below we will briefly define each of these departments, and explain their importance to the student.

Writing Center

When a student first enters post secondary, they are often forced to quickly adapt to new academic styles of writing. The way in which a student writes, and the way that they present their arguments and cite their sources have an impact on their final course grade. The academic writing style can present a challenge to students, and many find that they underperform in their first semesters as they learn this new skill. It is no secret that students will drop out if they are performing poorly. This is where the writing department can assist in retaining the student.

The writing department is responsible for helping students develop strong writing skills that will help them succeed in their courses. It will provide individual instruction, workshops, tools, and resources to students who need help with their writing.

Reading and Study Help

This department is the logical companion to the writing department. Many students are enrolled in programs that confront complex thoughts and language. While professors and instructors will often help to break down difficult concepts within their lectures, it is not uncommon for students to still have gaps in understanding. 

Oftentimes, schools will provide resources and spaces that help improve students’ study habits. These resources can include literature on effective tactics to increase comprehension, study time, and focus, or the school could even provide an organized system of tutors to help with reading and study concerns. Tutors are an integral part of student success, and so often they will have their own department as described below.

Tutoring Department

A tutoring service organized through the school can have an enormous impact on student success. A tutoring department will often cross over with many other services a school may offer. For example, a tutor can help a student with building positive writing and study habits as seen above. A tutor can, of course, also specialize in helping students within a specific course.

A tutoring department is a key tool in a student success center because it directly and effectively strengthens student performance- a key indicator in retention. An important consideration for this department is its management from an organizational standpoint. Our data shows that a well-designed management system can have a hugely positive impact on student outcomes.

Academic Advising

Oftentimes, the academic advising center is what people think of when they hear “student success center.” This is a justifiable thought, because the advising department is absolutely integral to the success of a student. Advisors help students chart a course through their academic career towards their chosen goal. Without this service, students would not be able to navigate the courses, prerequisites, chronology, or requirements of their chosen program as effectively. Advisors can also direct the student to other departments (such as the ones discussed) that will help them succeed. 

Goals of The Student Success Center

By the name, it is quite obvious what the ultimate goal of a student success center is, and we have already mentioned the importance of retention. There are, of course, many touchpoints for a student that can lead to their success or failure. For this, we can refer to the work of Vincent Tinto who identifies three primary reasons for students dropping out part way through a degree, “academic difficulties, challenges in resolving educational and occupational goals, and a failure to become academically and socially connected with the institution”. It is shown that a student’s struggles with due dates, study habits, and academic performance are key predictors of whether or not they will graduate (especially for first year students).

In 1975 Pascarella and Terenzini found that the leading cause of student attrition was a lack of “social and academic integration” in their institution. Later, a study from 1999-2005 suggested a shift; that most students dropped out because they didn’t like their chosen program, or because of financial difficulties. Today, we are seeing the reductions in school enrollments, and significant dropout rates caused by the rising cost of tuition, and the social/academic integration that has largely been lost to the pandemic.

Student success centers are a critical tool for higher education institutions in combating these challenges. The purpose of a student success center is to support students towards their academic and career goals while simultaneously helping to mitigate the academic difficulties that will arise along the way.

Organizational Structure

 

Supporting the right staff

The people that make up your organization are essential to its success. According to Josh Morrison, an academic advisor, advising is “like the hub of the wheel when it comes to the student experience, because the experiences of students and the challenges they face often intersect with the academic experience.” Therefore, it is integral that in the selection of staff, you ensure that they are capable of seeing the bigger picture in students’ trajectories, while simultaneously being attuned to their unique needs. In regards to the bigger picture, it is also important that your staff recognizes that most students attend school so they can attain a particular career. A career counsellor obviously focusses on this, but it could also be useful for the other advisors a student encounters to be cognizant of the ultimate goals of the student.

More broadly, in a student success center, it could be very helpful to establish output and performance expectations for your team. This can be made easier with tools that can track work time and also help with efficiency. There are student success tools like QuadC that have a dashboard of data on display, so you know exactly how well your team is doing, and helps you see where you need to improve.

Furthermore, it can be very beneficial to ensure there are open communication channels between colleagues in the same department, and other relevant departments. Many organizations find that their teams fall into silos, and do not perform at their best. To prevent this breakdown in communication you should be working to establish a strong organizational culture of working together and sharing relevant information. To read more about this, you can reference the Harvard Business Review’s article on how to create a corporate culture.

Determine the departments to build and prioritize

As mentioned at the outset, student success centers can be made of several different departments (writing, reading, tutoring, and advising). By leveraging the data you collect on your students, you can see where students are meeting expectations of underperforming. By knowing this, you can decide where to allocate budget and staff to efficiently meet the needs of your students.

Budget

An extension of strategic prioritization, of course, has its roots in budgetary restrictions. The funds you have to allocate to different departments and projects will be a strong determinant in the success of those specific undertakings. In order to determine your budget, it is key to have a complete understanding of the analytic data coming to you. There are many tools to help you do this, and not all are created equal, so it is best to assess a number of options, and compare them to your exact situation so that you can make the best decision.

Reach out to similar schools

Although each challenge faced by a school is specific, there are likely many schools that have confronted similar challenges. By connecting within the industry and sharing lessons learned, the continual growth of institutions can be shared rather than insular. We can all succeed to a greater degree when we share what we know, and listen to the lessons of others. There are resources such as the website, Inside Higher Ed, or the QuadC newsletter that share valuable industry insights.

Useful Tools and Technologies for Student Success Center Management

 

Early Alert Systems

Early alert systems are a hugely valuable tool that most schools are using today. These systems collect data and notice patterns that would indicate a student is performing poorly. The goal is to proactively detect when a student is underperforming and intervene to prevent the student dropping out. Early alert systems are highly effective tools if selected and employed correctly. Many early alert system providers rely on AI to find fledgling students. Unfortunately, the trouble with AI is twofold: (1) it can create enormous amounts of data, a great deal of which is irrelevant, and (2) it can create false alerts based around flawed predictive modeling. There are traditional software tools that do not use AI which are more affordable, generate more refined data, and help to increase personal connection with students.

With all tools mentioned on this list, it is important to know that not all early alert systems are made equal, and a higher price does not necessarily ensure the product is a better fit with your school. Here is a guide you can use when creating or reevaluating your early alert system.

Insightful Data Reporting

When operating a student success center, you make the best decisions when you have the most information available to you. It can be incredibly valuable to know which courses and departments students are struggling in. By honing in on the areas in which students need help, you will know which departments require more resources to support them.

When selecting or internally creating a tool to help you with data collection, ensure that it reliably and effectively sorts data appropriately. One of the key problems with current AI systems is that the sheer quantity of data can be overwhelming. If you are a smaller institution that doesn’t have the resources to create your own custom data collection system, take time and care to ensure that the product you purchase is relevant for you. Many providers have created systems with innumerable functions- this may be overwhelming for you, and your specific needs are perhaps met better elsewhere.

Effective meeting tools

We all know how important video conferencing has become in education. Many students are online, and oftentimes, never come to campus. By now most schools have robust online lecture systems in place. However, something not as often considered is the support that the student will need outside the classroom (i.e. student success centers) and the systems that are needed to support that.

Taking this idea further, many schools use separate software systems for video conferencing and for scheduling those meetings. However, in switching between services, you inevitably lose efficiency. It is worthwhile to consider using a service that is capable of scheduling, as well as video conferencing for your student success center.

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