Skip to main content

Success by design

Improving outcomes in American higher education

Tiffany Fishman
Allan Ludgate
Jen Tutak

The path to college graduation is more uncertain than ever: Nearly one-third of undergraduates leave after their first year and many require six years to complete their studies. What’s behind these trends? What steps can colleges and universities take to more effectively support their students?

A Deloitte Center for Higher Education Excellence series on student success

The first in a series examining innovative and effective strategies for improving student success, this introductory article examines current challenges to persistence and completion, and the demographic trends likely to further compound the issues in the coming years. It lays out a framework for building institutions designed to promote student success outcomes. It also surveys some of the most promising innovations across all dimensions of the student experience—from the classroom and support services to campus operations and partnerships with the broader community. Deloitte’s Center for Higher Education Excellence monitors developments in this area and, through this Success by Design series, will highlight some of the most promising strategies to help improve persistence rates, time to graduation and completion rates.

Show more

EVERY year across the United States, a significant number of students fail to complete their college degrees.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 30 per cent of students who entered college in the autumn of 2014 did not return in the second year.1 The debate over student debt frequently overlooks these students, who typically take on loans but leave college short of attaining a post-secondary credential. Often saddled with debt and without the benefit of the increased earning power that college graduates accrue, they tend to face a difficult struggle.2 They are also the most likely to default on their student loans. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, defaults are most common among students with the lowest debt burdens. Among those with less than $5,000 in debt, one in three defaulted on their loans.3

Furthermore, the National Center for Education Statistics estimates that among first-time, full-time students who started work towards a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution in 2008, only 60 per cent graduated within six years—by 2014.4 At public institutions, the six-year graduation rate hovers around 58 per cent; at private, nonprofit institutions it’s 65 per cent, while at private, for-profit institutions, it’s only 27 per cent.5

By any measure—whether it's persistence from year one to year two, time to graduation, or the percentage of students who complete their degrees—many postsecondary institutions are falling short.

Demographic shifts underway in the United States will likely further compound the problem in the coming years (see the sidebar “An epidemic further compounded by demographic shifts”).

The new nontraditional normal

Adding to the challenge, the profile of incoming college students has changed dramatically in recent years (see figure 1). No longer does the typical student come to college straight from high school, attend classes full-time and live on campus. Today, 44 per cent of college and university students are 24 years of age or older. Thirty per cent attend class part-time, 26 per cent work full-time while enrolled and 28 per cent take care of children or other dependents while pursuing their postsecondary studies. On top of that, 52 per cent are the first in their families to seek higher education, 42 per cent come from communities of colour and 18 per cent are non-native English speakers.6

Building an institution designed for student success

Given the implications behind these changing demographics, colleges and universities need to find new ways to effectively support their students on the path to graduation. As students with “nontraditional” backgrounds become more of the norm, traditional support structures, such as daytime-only office hours for advising and student affairs, will likely become inadequate.

“While it is true that retention programmes abound on our campuses, most institutions have not taken student retention seriously,” noted Vincent Tinto, distinguished university professor emeritus in the School of Education at Syracuse University. “They have done little to change the essential character of college, little to alter the prevailing character of student educational experience and therefore little to address the deeper roots of student attrition. As a result, most efforts to enhance student success, though successful to some degree, have had more limited impact than they should or could.”7

So what should institutions of higher education do differently? How can they develop effective strategies to help students succeed in college?

For an institution of higher education focussed on improving student success outcomes, developing a definition of success on that particular campus constitutes an essential first step. Once the end goal is clear, the institution can develop a holistic, student-centred strategy across all dimensions of the student experience, from the classroom to support services to campus operations to relationships with the broader community, with all designed to foster measurable improvements in persistence rates, time to graduation and completion rates (see figure 2).

In the sections below, we highlight some innovative and effective strategies for improving student success across each dimension of the student experience and we describe the foundational capacities that institutions should develop if they are to drive meaningful improvements. Through a companion checklist, we also lay out the chief considerations that higher education leaders should contemplate as they formulate their institution’s strategy for student success.

An epidemic further compounded by demographic shifts

The proportion of students coming to college from wealthy or middle-class families—students who tend to be well-equipped to complete their postsecondary degree—is shrinking. Before long, a majority of US schoolchildren will likely be raised in low-income households (see figure 3).8 Many of these students will come from high-poverty states in the South, the region that is expected to see the most growth in high school graduates over the next decade (see figure 4). Among low-income graduates who attend college, many will be the first in their families to do so. These students often face an especially tough path to graduation.

For students from low-income families, financing is not the only factor standing in the way of higher learning. Many don’t receive the high-quality K-12 education they need to effectively prepare for college in the first place.9 According to a Programme for International Student Assessment report, the quality of US education varies widely, depending on the ethnic and socioeconomic profile of the local school system. The study found that in schools where more than 75 per cent of students receive free or reduced lunch, a proxy for income level, average literacy scores are far below the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average. By contrast, students attending schools where fewer than 10 per cent receive free or reduced lunch tend to have the highest literacy scores in the world.10

This issue is exacerbated by the fact that many high schools—particularly those in low-income areas—don’t help students develop the study skills they would need to excel in college.11 Without this preparation, students may have trouble keeping pace in college and eventually lose the confidence and motivation essential to completing their studies.

Beyond inadequate academic preparation, first-generation college students may not be able to rely on family or friends for advice about higher education. This can result in an additional burden of constructing a support network of mentors, role models and advisors all on their own. Without suitable advice and counselling, these students may make decisions that adversely affect their circumstances—and thus, their education.

Show more

High-impact learning

The lecture-based model for learning has characterised higher education since its inception. But, with better technology and a much deeper understanding of how students learn, educators are starting to personalise learning. They are combining leading elements of traditional teaching with digital technology, using analytics to tailor the curriculum to individual learners and focussing on competencies rather than credit hours to help students graduate sooner.

Here we examine a few of the most promising innovations designed to improve learning outcomes—each rooted in the idea that students come to college with different levels of knowledge, learn in different ways and progress at varying paces.

Blended learning

The Centre for Digital Education reports that blended or hybrid education models improve comprehension and test scores for 84 per cent of students. 12 These models blend elements of “brick-and-mortar”, in-person instruction with asynchronous, self-paced online learning. A US Department of Education analysis found blended learning to be more effective than conventional face-to-face classes or online learning models. 13

One popular form of blended learning is the “flipped classroom”. In this model, students absorb course content outside of class—through lecture videos or online activities, for example—and then use classroom time to reinforce their understanding.

As part of a broad initiative to redesign courses across the curriculum, Missouri State University, for example, implemented a flipped classroom model for its Introductory Psychology course. Before the change, the course was taught in a traditional lecture format. Under the new model, students read course materials and completed online assignments before coming to class, where seven staff members (a full-time instructor, a graduate assistant or adjunct instructor and five undergraduate learning assistants) worked with about 300 students per section. Through the new format, a higher staff-to-student ratio and other improvements, the university saw the number of students earning As or Bs in Introductory Psychology increase by 31 per cent in conjunction with a drop of 10 per cent in the cost of delivering the course. 14

Blended learning classrooms can help instructors reduce in-class time by as much as one-half and use class time more efficiently. 15 The instructor might focus class time on just those topics that are giving students trouble, for example, or students might use the time to practice solving problems. 16 In its “Teaching with Technology” survey of staff members across the United States, Campus Technology found that 55 per cent of higher education staff today flip all or some of their courses. 17

Not only do many students prefer blended learning environments over other configurations of face-to-face and online options, but studies by the Banknote & Melinda Gates Foundation show that high-quality hybrid courses help at-risk students master content twice as fast as they would with lectures and their pass rates increase by one-third. 18, 19

Adaptive learning for personalised education

Unlike the typical online learning environment in which everyone starts at the same level and advances at the same pace, adaptive learning technology uses analytics to tailor learning to a student’s current level of mastery, anticipating what content and resources each student needs at each point in the course. 20, 21 A study by Fulcrum Labs shows that course completion rates among students who used adaptive learning courseware were 15 per cent higher than those among students in traditional online courses. 22

Confronted with a large number of students who were not college-ready in mathematics—a key predictor of success at Arizona State University (ASU)—the university launched a maths readiness programme in the autumn of 2011, using adaptive learning technology. Students work through the programme at their own pace, aided by an instructor. The adaptive system uses student data to continually assess what a student knows, remediate any proficiency gaps identified and reassess student mastery of course concepts, giving each student a personalised learning path. Instructors gain an in-depth view of which students are on- and off-track and why, so they can intervene in a timely way. Instructors also see which concepts students are struggling with across the board, so they can focus class time on mastering those concepts.

According to Phil Regier, executive vice provost and dean of ASU Online, students' performance in entry-level maths helps predict whether they will graduate from the university. “If we can make more students successful in entry-level college mathematics,” Regier said, “the university will benefit because we’ll do what we’re supposed to do, which is retain [and graduate] our students at a higher rate.” 23

Initial results of ASU’s adaptive learning platform in developmental maths show improved outcomes, with fewer students withdrawing, increased pass rates and students completing the course in less time. 24

Education based on competency

Nontraditional students come from a variety of backgrounds and situations that typically do not lend themselves to the old model of higher education. They have varying levels of education and experience, likely cannot afford four years to complete a qualification, may need to work part-time or full-time and often must juggle family and other responsibilities while completing their studies. 25

For these students, models based on competency are emerging as an attractive alternative to the traditional credit-hour model. Rather than using the number of credit hours completed as the yardstick for success, competency-based degree programmes focus on whether students actually master the material. The idea stems from a simple premise, says Jeffrey Selingo, author of College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students: “[D]egrees should be based on how much students know, not how much time they spend in a classroom.” 26

Competency-based qualifications reward prior experience and measure learning through demonstrated proficiency. They allow students to progress through “courses” at their own pace, shortening or lengthening the time needed to complete a qualification. The number of institutions offering competency-based qualifications has grown in recent years to include some large public universities, such as the University of Wisconsin, Purdue University, the University of Texas, the University of Michigan and Northern Arizona University.

The University of Wisconsin, the first major public university to offer a competency-based programme, allows working adults with some college experience to finish their qualifications through online courses and competency testing. The cost is $2,250 per three-month term. 27

Comprehensive support services

Registering for courses, securing financial aid, developing strong study skills, mastering difficult course material— students must overcome a wide variety of obstacles on the path to graduation. Student services that are effectively targeted and delivered in a timely fashion can do much to help students along and produce better outcomes. 28

Supporting students through the financial aid cycle

Lack of financial resources is a major reason why students drop out of college. 29 In response to this challenge, institutions are crafting strategies to encourage students to complete their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) applications on time, which increases their chances of gaining funding. Some institutions, for example, assign students a financial aid counsellor when they receive their acceptance, while others require students to complete their financial aid applications before they register or enrol.

Arizona State University, for example, designed a series of carefully crafted, timely email messages to remind students— and in some cases, their parents—to submit the financial aid application. This strategy increased filings by the priority deadline by 72 per cent. It also increased the number of FAFSA applications submitted by the start of the following academic year from 67 per cent to 73 per cent. 30

Apart from helping students apply for financial aid, institutions are exploring other innovative ways to make sure students don’t drop out due to a lack of funds. In Georgia, the state covers the tuition at a Georgia institution for any eligible student who maintains a 3.0 cumulative average through the HOPE scholarship programme. Analysts at Georgia State University (GSU) examined the records of students who lost this scholarship. Most, they found, were maintaining averages of just under 3.0, but only 9 per cent managed to pull up their grades and gain back the financial support. Students who lost support rarely graduated on time, if at all. So in 2008, GSU instituted the Keep HOPE Alive scholarship programme, which gives $1,000 to freshmen and sophomores who have lost their HOPE scholarships but maintain an average of at least 2.75. The goal is to prevent these students from dropping out. In addition to maintaining a GPA of 2.75 or higher, recipients of the scholarship must also meet other requirements, such as attending financial counselling and academic skills workshops. 31

Identifying and targeting interventions for at-risk students

Sometimes multiple factors cause students to fall behind. Identifying students who are at risk of dropping out or falling behind and targeting interventions for them can be a tough task.

Some universities use empirically developed data indicators that predict a given outcome as a “flag” that a student is in trouble, so they can target interventions to help these students get back on track. Take Bucknell University, for example.

Starting with the class of 2020, Bucknell has been using predictive modelling to identify students who need extra help getting through their first year of college (see figure 5). The model uses pre-enrolment data such as demographic characteristics and family income, and post-enrolment data such as academic and social experiences during the first term, to arrive at a “success score.” Students who seem most likely to achieve a first-year GPA of 3.0 or higher and return for their sophomore year are given the highest scores.

Bucknell also attaches a set of reason codes to each student’s record that explains the logic behind the score. A code that indicates a problem such as poor attendance, low grades, or lack of campus engagement prompts the university to intervene. For example, a student who struggles in a class during the first weeks of the term might get a prompt to seek out tutoring, receive a list of available tutoring services, or be sent a personal message from a tutor who can provide help.32

Structured pathways

Students are more likely to graduate on time if they have structured pathways to guide them. Having an academic plan when they first matriculate, a clear idea of which programme and courses to choose and timely support can all help them stay on track.33

In the early 2000s, Florida State University introduced a guided-pathway model comprising academic programme maps and mandatory advising at key points in a student’s career. Since the programme’s introduction, the percentage of students graduating with excess credits dropped from 30 per cent to just 5 per cent between 2000 and 2009, while the four-year graduation rate rose from 44 per cent to 61 per cent.34

The University of Hawaii’s STAR graduation initiative has won accolades from Complete College America for helping to dramatically increase graduation rates. The STAR Guided Pathways Systems use technology developed by the university to give students a clear and streamlined route to graduation, by enabling them to track their progress, review requirements and explore the impact of scheduling (and changes in major) on the time it will take them to graduate.35

While more institutions are beginning to offer structured pathway programmes that provide a clear road map to on-time graduation, too many colleges still operate on a self-service model. Students left on their own to choose from among a wide variety of disconnected courses, programmes and support services often have a hard time navigating their way to a diploma. Quite a few never make it.36

Timely tutoring and coaching services help prevent students from falling behind

Tutoring can help to bridge the gap between student knowledge and course material. Tutoring is most effective when tutors use students’ data to help them make informed decisions about how to focus their work with students.37

Peer-to-peer or peer-led tutoring has been shown to help students bridge knowledge gaps. The University of Texas at El Paso, in a 10-year pilot programme started in 2001, replaced one hour of lecture in a large STEM course (with more than 300 students) with many, small two-hour peer-led team learning workshops, taught by intensively trained undergraduate students who had previously excelled in the course. A 10-year study of this pilot (2001-2011) showed that this programme produced a greater than 15 per cent increase in the weighted average of the passing rate.38

Similar to tutoring, coaching can have positive effects on student persistence and completion.39 Coaches can help students articulate long-term goals and connect their daily activities to those goals and build skills such as time management, self-advocacy and study strategies.40 Unlike tutoring, which focuses on bridging specific subject-area knowledge gaps, the coaching model represents a wraparound support for a student’s entire collegiate journey. It has proven to be particularly helpful in supporting low-income and first-year students.41

The Indiana Commission of Higher Education’s “Scholar Coaching Initiative,” launched in 2014, has helped boost retention rates for low-income, first-year students at Ivy Tech Community College and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis by 12.1 per cent and 10 per cent, respectively, in just two years.42 The programme pairs each student with a mentor, who helps the student balance work, personal commitments and financial challenges with a demanding academic workload.43

Student-focussed operations

Colleges and universities should adapt to the needs of a diverse, dynamic and changing student population by providing flexible services and a greater sense of connection.

When students fail to graduate, sometimes the ordinary obstacles of daily life are to blame. Conflicts with work schedules, unreliable child care, lack of transportation and unpredictable class schedules can all obstruct students in their progress towards their degrees. Campus officials should do their best to help students work around those challenges.

Greater predictability through structured scheduling

In 2014, more than one-third of students who enrolled in college attended part-time.44 These students often juggle families, jobs and studies, and the challenge of that balancing act makes them more likely to drop out of school than their full-time counterparts.

Part-time students need greater control over the hours they spend on campus, so that they can better manage their personal and academic obligations. Flexible, predictable schedules help prevent students from dropping out and encourage more students to enrol full-time.45

Institutions can help by designing more student-friendly class schedules. For example, they might design schedules in morning or afternoon blocks—for instance, from 9:00 a.m. to noon or 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.—five days a week. For students with obligations off-campus, these blocks can be easier to manage than a time-table of 60- or 90-minute courses punctuated by hours of free time. Time-table blocks also help students form learning communities and working groups, offering vital student-to-student support and a strong sense of connectedness to faculty and institutions.46

The University of Montana Western has created a blocked-scheduling programme called Experience One. Students enrolled in the programme take a single course at a time, meeting for a three- or four-hour block for 18 days. Once students complete the course, they move on to the next four-credit block, enabling them to earn the same amount of credit as they would under a traditional multi-class system.47

Structured scheduling can be even more beneficial when applied to entire programmes. Once students choose their programmes, college officials can decide on the required sequence of courses and then block those courses in coherent, connected schedules. This not only helps students avoid common mistakes when selecting courses, but also helps institutions better estimate how many sections they’ll need to schedule for each course and when, so that students can complete their chosen programmes on time.48

Providing flexibility through digital services

When institutions deliver services such as advising, counselling and financial aid only through face-to-face meetings during normal business hours, students who have jobs, families and other off-campus responsibilities are less likely to take advantage of them.

To broaden access to services, colleges and universities are adopting a growing number of digitally enabled student services, in addition to traditional in-person services offered on campus. Johns Hopkins University, for instance, offers Skype-based advising sessions.49

While most institutions deliver basic digital services such as course registration, library resources and financial aid information, colleges and universities should consider an integrated approach to digitising these services and they should add more complex services, such as intrusive advising.50

As part of their strategies to harness technology for student advising, institutions should not forget about mobile computing, the ubiquitous communications platform of the current generation. A one-stop mobile app offers a crucial channel for accessing campus services and communicating with advisors, mentors and counsellors.51

Hoping to foster better communications and engagement among first-year students, in 2014 Texas A&M University implemented OOHLALA, a mobile app that serves as a kind of personal assistant. Students can use this app to plan their schedules; manage their study time; keep track of assignments; form study groups; get information about campus events, clubs and services; organise activities; communicate with individuals and groups; and a great deal more. As first-year students started using the app in large numbers, it helped them find roommates, connect with on-campus activities and obtain help from upperclassmen, all of which helped ease the transition to university life.52

Strategic external partnerships

Many individuals and organisations - on- and off-campus - can help students along the path to success. A college that forges relationships with outside entities offers its students an edge in their academic careers and beyond. An institution might, for example, partner with high schools to help prepare students for college. It could collaborate with peer institutions to share leading practices, or to implement strategies cost-effectively. Support from a variety of stakeholders, co-ordinated by an institution of higher learning, can help put students in a better position to succeed.

Preparing high schoolers for the rigours of college

Many students enter college unprepared. While 87 per cent of high school students surveyed by YouthTruth said they wanted to go to college, only 45 per cent felt ready to succeed there.53 Besides being academically unprepared, many students come to college with little idea about which courses to take, which financial aid options to choose, or what careers they want to pursue. They may even lack the emotional stamina that college life demands.

Partnerships between colleges and high schools can help ease the transition to higher education. One such initiative is the City University of New York's (CUNY) At Home in College (AHC) programme.54

Approximately three out of four students who entered CUNY's community colleges in 2010 needed developmental or remedial education in at least one subject. To help improve the odds for incoming students, the AHC programme worked with students who were on-track to graduate from New York City public high schools but had not met traditional benchmarks of college readiness, such as adequate SAT scores.55

The programme focussed on preparing students for the CUNY placement exam and college-level work; helping them with college and financial-aid applications; getting them ready for college life; and assigning each student a faculty mentor, a full-time advisor and a peer mentor who kept track of her progress during the first year of college.56

Students who participated in AHC scored 10 to 20 percentage points higher on the CUNY placement exam than students who were not in the programme. The two-year retention rate for students enrolled full-time in associate's degree programmes with AHC advisement was 16 per cent higher than those enrolled in associate's degree programmes who did not participate in the AHC programme.57

The University of Montana partners with high schools across Montana to help students better prepare for college-level maths coursework. Research by Complete College America found that 71 per cent of students in the Montana State University system do not make it through gateway-level college maths classes within two years - a major deterrent to persistence. These findings spurred the university to find a better way to prepare students for college-level maths.58

Through its online project EdReady Montana, the university offers a free, personalised maths curriculum for students from middle school through college that assesses a student's current maths skills and provides a tailored learning path to help them achieve their educational goals. To date, EdReady has been implemented in more than 290 schools across Montana.

Early results from a 2014 pilot found that students who used EdReady before their college maths classes, compared with those who did not, earned a.25 to.75 higher average GPA in their first term of college.59

Early college high schools

Another kind of partnership allows students to earn college credits while still in high school. One example is the Early College High Schools (ECHS) programme, a collaboration between the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), El Paso Community College (EPCC) and local high schools.

Early college high schools are small public schools that offer college courses, starting in ninth grade. They are based on the theory that if you engage underrepresented students in a rigorous curriculum, with strong academic and social support, tied to the incentive of earning college credit, those students are more likely to pursue higher education.60 In the El Paso programme, students earn associate’s degrees while also completing high school; they then move on to UTEP as college juniors.

These collaborative efforts have proven extremely successful. A study by the American Institutes for Research shows that students who attend early college high school were significantly more likely to enrol in college; 25 per cent of them went on to graduate, compared to just 5 per cent of students who did not attend early college high schools.61

At UTEP, since 2009, more than 1,100 ECHS students with associate’s degrees from EPCC have graduated or are on track for bachelor’s degrees.62

While the academic programme is the foundation for the El Paso success, the wraparound services available from ninth grade through college graduation really make the difference. From eighth grade on, each student in the programme works with an advisor to chart an appropriate academic path. At UTEP, staff at the ECHS Academic Success Center provide advice about majors, financial aid and other areas of interest.

The El Paso example shows how institutions can collaborate to create a streamlined experience from high school through college and graduation.63

Partnering with peer institutions to share leading practices

While implementing strategies on their own campuses, colleges and universities can also share leading practices with peer institutions.

Take the University Innovation Alliance (UIA), for example. The 11 member universities of the UIA work together to identify and pilot innovative programmes designed to improve student success.64 The goal is to create a playbook of what works at scale to help students from all backgrounds attain a degree. The alliance has pledged to scale successful programmes across member campuses to graduate an additional 68,000 students by 2025.65 Three member schools—Georgia State University, Arizona State University and the University of Texas at Austin—have successfully piloted strategies that use predictive analytics to inform university decisions and academic planning. Other UIA members are using the lessons learnt from these efforts to guide the development of their own initiatives to apply predictive analytics capabilities to aid with student success at their respective institutions.66

Foundational capacities to drive student success

When it comes to improving student success, few institutions have achieved significant gains. Why? It’s not so much a question of what to do, but rather how to do it effectively. This is due to the inherent obstacles to change that colleges and universities typically face—from distributed decision-making systems and multiple power and authority structures to misaligned goals.

To help drive widespread student success, an institution should marshal all its resources, gain commitment from staff and others who work with students, embrace innovation, ground decisions in solid evidence, create incentives resulting from change for all stakeholders and stay relentless about measurement and evaluation. And to be able to achieve this kind of fundamental change, strong leadership must champion the effort.

Georgia State University offers a prime example of what is possible when the foundational capacities of leadership and strategy, measurement and evaluation and transformational readiness all come together. A nationally recognised leader in student success, GSU achieved one of the most dramatic graduation rate increases in the country while working to eliminate the graduation rate gap among low-income and underrepresented students.67 It made these gains not through a single programme, but through a variety of smaller initiatives, which were all supported by the university’s well-developed foundational capacities.

Leadership and strategy

Dedicated support from university leadership was one of the overarching reasons behind the success of GSU’s decade-long effort to improve student progress and graduation.68 The two university presidents who served during that time, along with their provosts, championed those efforts, provided resources, allowed the student success team to follow the data wherever it led and encouraged the team to pursue disruptive solutions.

The leaders also maintained a long-term perspective, understanding that successes would accumulate over time. For instance, when the student success team proposed the Summer Success Academy, allowing the most at-risk incoming students to earn seven credit hours and receive academic advising and financial literacy training before their first term, President Mark Becker might have baulked. After all, this cohort would reduce the average SAT score for entering students, pushing down the institution’s US News & World Report ranking. But when the student success team convinced him that the Academy would eventually boost the university’s graduation rate, he endorsed the programme.69

Support from the top also helped to remove an array of obstacles to student success that were related to university infrastructure. A careful analysis of university data drawn from multiple sources revealed that when students faced problems involving academic policy, financial aid, billing, student choices and other functions on campus, they almost never could resolve those issues by working with one university office alone. Seemingly separate problems were actually interconnected in complex ways. For example, a student who struggled academically in a few classes risked losing the state’s HOPE scholarship, which might jeopardise that student’s entire academic career.

To better address such issues, GSU leadership integrated the functions of registrar, advising, admissions, financial aid and student accounts into a single unit, making it easier for staff to collaborate on students’ problems. The managers of these functions hold weekly meetings, which help reveal new obstacles that students may face and provide a better structure for dealing with those issues.70

Measurement and evaluation

Another key to GSU’s programme's success was its approach to problem solving, which was firmly rooted in data. This strategy started with a focussed effort to maintain the quality of the data that drove decisions. When GSU launched its student success programmes, administrators already had a wealth of transactional student data upon which to draw. But to help make that data useful, they needed to move it from numerous stand-alone systems into a well-designed data warehouse. They also needed to make sure that the Institutional Research Team and the offices responsible for the transactional data kept the warehouse up to date. GSU’s problem-solving process and many of the student success initiatives that grew from that process, would not have been possible without this data infrastructure.71

With the infrastructure in place, not only could GSU uncover the greatest obstacles to student success and launch programmes to address them, it could also continually test new approaches. “We teach the scientific method all the time,” explained President Becker. “But very few universities actually do experiments to see what works.” Running trials with just 100 or 200 students, officials at GSU were able to identify proposed solutions that held real promise.72

When a likely solution emerged from a small-scale pilot, GSU quickly ramped it up to test how well it worked on a broader scale. By applying this method to simple problems, GSU made some significant gains in student outcomes. Those early wins encouraged administration and staff to apply the same methodology to tougher, more complex issues.73

In one experiment, in 2011, the university gave small grants to approximately 200 students who had been dropped from classes for nonpayment. These students had good grades, owed just a small amount of money and were close to graduation. The grants kept most of the students from dropping out, resulting in higher graduation rates in the long term. In 2012, GSU expanded this programme, now called the Panther Retention Grant, to 700 students. The average grant was less than $1,000.74

In another experiment, GSU addressed challenges caused by its new, more expensive flat-style residence halls which, because they feature kitchens rather than dining halls, do not promote as strong a sense of community. In 2009, it opened Freshman Hall, a newer residence hall based on an older model, with small double rooms, shared bathrooms and a dining hall. A spot in Freshman Hall, including a meal plan, costs considerably less than a spot in the flat-style residence. The new residence always fills up fast.75

Transformational readiness

A third reason for GSU’s programme's success is that the administration and staff have made a powerful commitment to students who have been underserved in the past, making deliberate efforts to transform the university to promote better outcomes. As these efforts started to show results and word got out about GSU’s performance, the university started to attract more applications from students who were already well-prepared to succeed. But instead of trying to enhance its stature by accepting more of those applicants, GSU has continued to pursue students who show promise but face academic and financial challenges.76

In 2015, Georgia’s Board of Regents voted to merge GSU and Georgia Perimeter College.77 The merger with this multi-campus community college increased GSU’s undergraduate population by two-thirds. Most of the new students come from the underserved communities that GSU has committed to helping and most face the kinds of academic challenges that GSU has been working to address over the past decade.78

Besides rallying the community around this cause, GSU has taken a realistic approach towards funding. Recognising that recent cuts to public funding are unlikely to be restored, GSU has instead used its own limited budget to produce the most effective outcomes it can. Relying on student data to determine which investments may produce the greatest payoffs and using well-targeted experiments to test those hypotheses, GSU has produced a transformation that it can sustain well into the future.79

Getting started

Colleges and universities face growing pressure from state legislatures, the federal government and the broader public, including students themselves, to become more accountable for improving retention and graduation rates, among other measures. At the same time, changes in student demographics are making the challenge of improving student success outcomes even greater. Institutions should respond with student-centred strategies that holistically address critical parts of the student experience that are linked to student success. All facets of an institution’s strategy and capacities should work together to promote successful student outcomes.

To become an institution designed for success, colleges and universities should start by assessing their institution’s commitment along each of the seven dimensions of success (see figure 6). The results will help reveal the institution’s relative maturity along each dimension and point to specific areas that may require the greatest attention.

Meaningful progress on student success will not happen overnight. Institutions should foster the culture, skill sets and infrastructure necessary to support a student-focussed environment. As the magnitude of the challenge grows, institutions that start down this path sooner, rather than later, are most likely to see significant results.

As used in this document, “Deloitte” means Deloitte Consulting LLP, which are separate subsidiaries of Deloitte LLP. Please see for a detailed description of our legal structure. Certain services may not be available to attest clients under the rules and regulations of public accountancy.

This communication contains general information only and none of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited, its member firms, or their related entities (collectively, the “Deloitte Network”) is, by means of this communication, rendering professional advice or services. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your finances or your business, you should consult a qualified professional advisor. No entity in the Deloitte Network shall be responsible for any loss whatsoever sustained by any person who relies on this communication.

Deloitte Center for Higher Education Excellence


Written By: Tiffany Fishman, Allan Ludgate, Jen Tutak

Cover image by: Alex Nabaum

Project team: Purva Singh assisted with the research and writing of the article.

The authors would like to thank the following individuals who helped shape the perspectives in this article: Pete Fritz, Tyler Saas, Maggie Burger, Scott Friedman, and Matt Alex of Deloitte Consulting LLP and Dave Noone and Cole Clark of Deloitte Services LP.

  1. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, Snapshot report—Persistence and retention, 3 May 2016,

    View in Article
  2. The College Board, Trends in higher education,, accessed 28 February 2017.

    View in Article
  3. Josh Mitchell, “Who’s most likely to default on student loans?” Wall Street Journal, 19 February 2015,>-on-student-loans/.

    View in Article
  4. National Center for Education Statistics, “Fast facts: Graduation rates,”, accessed 14 December 2016.

    View in Article
  5. Ibid.

    View in Article
  6. Tia Brown McNair et al., Becoming a Student-Ready College: A New Culture of Leadership for Student Success (Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass, 2016).

    View in Article
  7. Vincent Tinto, Taking student retention seriously, Syracuse University,, accessed 31 January 2017.

    View in Article
  8. Southern Education Foundation, A new majority: Low Income students now a majority in the nation’s public schools, January 2015,

    View in Article
  9. Program for International Student Assessment, “2015 results,”, accessed 31 January 2017.

    View in Article
  10. Ibid.

    View in Article
  11. Allan Ludgate, Frances Messano, and Owen Stearns, Brighter futures: Tackling the college completion challenge, Monitor Institute, Winter 2013,

    View in Article
  12. The Center for Digital Education, The curriculum of the future: How digital content is changing education, 2014, no. 4,

    View in Article
  13. Barbara Means et al., Evaluation of evidence-based practises in online learning, US Department of Education, September 2010,

    View in Article
  14. Danae L. Drab-Hudson, Brooke L. Whisenhunt, Carol F. Shoptaugh, Ann D. Rost, and Rachel N. Fondren-Happel, MyPsychLab case study, accessed December 2016.

    View in Article
  15. Deanna Marcum, Christine Mulhern, and Clara Samayoa, Technology-enhanced education at public flagship universities: Opportunities and challenges, Ithaka S+R, 11 December 2014,

    View in Article
  16. Ibid.

    View in Article
  17. Dian Schaffhauser and Rhea Kelly, 55 per cent of staff are flipping the classroom, Campus Technology, 12 October 2016, cent-of-staff-are-flipping-the-classroom.aspx, accessed 15 December 2016.

    View in Article
  18. Eden Dahlstrom, Tom de Boor, Peter Grunwald, and Martha Vockley, The ECAR national study of undergraduate students and information technology, 2011, EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research, October 2011, p. 27,

    View in Article
  19. Impatient Optimists, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, “Innovation’s role in improving Higher Education,” 4 August 2015,

    View in Article
  20. Elizabeth Mulherrin, “How adaptive learning can make higher ed more customised and effective (part 1),” The EvoLLLution, 11 September 2014,

    View in Article
  21. Learning analytics refers to the measurement, collection, analysis, and reporting of data about the progress of learners and the contexts in which learning takes place. It has also been perceived positively by students—it can provide students with an opportunity to take control of their own learning, give them a better idea of their current performance in real-time, and help them to make informed choices about what to study.

    View in Article
  22. John Boersma, “New research validates effectiveness of adaptive learning,” EmergingEdTech, 4 August 2013,

    View in Article
  23. Tanya Roscorla, “Arizona State University adopts adaptive learning technology,” Converge, Center for Digital Education, 14 January 2011,

    View in Article
  24. Knewton, “Arizona State University,”, accessed 2 February 2017.

    View in Article
  25. Tia Brown McNair et al., Becoming a Student-Ready College.

    View in Article
  26. Jeffrey J. Selingo, College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means For Students (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013).

    View in Article
  27. University of Wisconsin, “UW flexible option,”, accessed December 2016.

    View in Article
  28. Ari Blum and Dave Jarrat, Using student services to enhance outcomes and reduce costs, InsideTrack, “Stretching the higher education dollar” American Enterprise Institute conference, October 2014, p. 2-4,

    View in Article
  29. Allan Ludgate, Frances Messano, and Owen Stearns, Brighter futures: Tackling the college completion challenge, Monitor Institute, Winter 2013,

    View in Article
  30. Ideas42, Nudging for success: Using behavioural science to improve the postsecondary student journey, June 2016,, accessed on 2 February 2017.

    View in Article
  31. Martin Kurzweil and D. Derek Wu, Building a pathway to student success at Georgia State University, Ithaka S+R, 23 April 2015,

    View in Article
  32. Bill Conley and Param Bedi, “Commentary: Helping students over initial college hurdles”,, 23 September 2016,

    View in Article
  33. Thomas Bailey, Shanna Smith Jaggers, and Davis Jenkins, What we know about guided pathways, Columbia University, Teachers College, Community College Research Center, April 2015,

    View in Article
  34. Columbia University, Teachers College, Community College Research Center, Redesigning community colleges for student success: Overview of the guided pathways approach, October 2014,

    View in Article
  35. University of Hawaii, “Complete College America honours UH’s STAR and 15 to finish programs”, 11 November 2016,

    View in Article
  36. Bailey, Jaggars, and Jenkins, What we know about guided pathways.

    View in Article
  37. Corwin: SAGE Publication, Student-centered coaching at the secondary level,, accessed 14 December 2016.

    View in Article
  38. The PLTL is a nationally recognised model for teaching and learning that originated in a chemistry course at the City College of New York in 1991. In this model, students who have done well in the course previously are recruited to become peer-leaders: Students who lead small groups of six to eight students in problem solving and discussion of the course material. As many as 20 individual studies have shown improved student performance as a result of participating in the PLTL.

    View in Article
  39. Eric P. Bettinger and Rachel Baker, The effects of student coaching in college: An evaluation of a randomized experiment in student mentoring, Stanford University School of Education, 7 March 2011,

    View in Article
  40. Ibid.

    View in Article
  41. InsideTrack, Coaching for persistence and completion at Indiana State University, accessed 14 December 2016,

    View in Article
  42. Insidetrack, Indiana public universities boost persistence of low-income students through success coaching, 22 November 2016

    View in Article
  43. Globe Newswire, “Mentoring initiative helps thousands of low-income Hoosier students stay in college,” 30 November 2015,

    View in Article
  44. National Center for Education Statistics, “Total fall enrolment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by attendance status, sex of student, and control of institution: Selected years, 1947 through 2025,” accessed 14 December 2016,

    View in Article
  45. Complete College America, “Structured schedules,”, accessed 14 December 2016.

    View in Article
  46. Ibid.

    View in Article
  47. Complete College America, New rules: Policies to strengthen and scale the game changers, November 2016,, accessed 7 February 2017.

    View in Article
  48. Complete College America, “Structured schedules.

    View in Article
  49. John Hopkins University, Academic Advising,, accessed December 2016.

    View in Article
  50. Center for Applied Research, National study of undergraduate students and information technology, 2011

    View in Article
  51. Ibid.

    View in Article
  52. Joe Hoff, “Engaging students with a mobile app,” Educause, 30 March 2015,, accessed 31 January 2017.

    View in Article
  53. YouthTruth Student Survey, Learning from student voice: Most high schoolers feel unprepared for college and careers,, accessed 31 January 2017.

    View in Article
  54. US Department of Education, “At home in college program, City University of New York (CUNY): Promising and practical strategies to increase postsecondary success,”, accessed January 2017.

    View in Article
  55. Ibid.

    View in Article
  56. Ibid.

    View in Article
  57. Ibid.

    View in Article
  58. Montana Digital Academy, EdReady Montana impact report 2016, 16 June 2016,, accessed 6 February 2017.

    View in Article
  59. Ibid.

    View in Article
  60. Andrea Berger et al., Early college, continued success: Early college high school initiative impact study, American Institutes for Research, 2014, p.2,, accessed 13 December 2016.

    View in Article
  61. Ibid., p.14.

    View in Article
  62. Nancy Hoffman and Valerie Lundy-Wagner, Addressing the 61st hour challenge: Collaborating in El Paso to create seamless pathways from high school to college, 2016, p. 5,

    View in Article
  63. Ibid.

    View in Article
  64. Oregon State University, UC Riverside, Arizona State University, University of Texas at Austin, University of Kansas, Iowa State University, Purdue University, Michigan State University, Ohio State University, Georgia State University, and University of Central Florida.

    View in Article
  65. University Innovation Alliance, “University Innovation Alliance at White House to pledge commitment to graduate 68,000 additional students by 2025,” 4 December 2014,, accessed 14 December 2016.

    View in Article
  66. University Innovation Alliance, Collaboration project goal: Predictive analytics,, accessed December 2016.

    View in Article
  67. Postsecondary Success, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, “Georgia State University,” accessed January 2017.

    View in Article
  68. Martin Kurzweil and D. Derek Wu, Building a pathway to student success at Georgia State University, Ithaka S+R, 23 April 2015,

    View in Article
  69. Ibid.

    View in Article
  70. Ibid.

    View in Article
  71. Ibid.

    View in Article
  72. Nick Anderson, “Georgia State U—a hotbed of growth and innovation,” Washington Post, 1 October 2015,

    View in Article
  73. Kurzweil and Wu, Building a pathway to student success at Georgia State University; Ibid.

    View in Article
  74. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, “Georgia Status University,” Postsecondary Success, http://postsecondary.gatesfoundation.

    View in Article
  75. Kurzweil and Wu, Building a pathway to student success at Georgia State University; Ibid.

    View in Article
  76. Georgia State University and Georgia Perimeter College, “Overview,”, accessed January 2017.

    View in Article
  77. Kurzweil and Wu, Building a pathway to student success at Georgia State University; Ibid.

    View in Article
  78. Gates Foundation, Ibid.

    View in Article

Did you find this useful?

Thanks for your feedback

If you would like to help improve further, please complete a 3-minute survey