4 Key Ways to Create Student Success in Higher Education

The student experience is taking center stage as higher ed institutions prioritize student success. It will require digital experiences, flexibility, educational options, and a rich set of accessible services to meet students where they are.

Colleges and universities want to help all types of learners, especially underrepresented students. Yet each year, 25% of first-year students leave college and more than 1 in 3 students never complete college. And “boomerang” students, returning to college later in life or looking to gain new skills and credentials, also face many challenges such as balancing work and family with their studies.

“Today the average graduation rate in the United States is somewhere in the 60% range,” says Opinder Bawa, CIO and vice president at the University of San Francisco. “That’s pretty low. If you look at the historical trends of universities and their graduation rates, would you buy a car that only works 60% of the time?” 

And while there are many reasons why students leave or return to college, the benefits of earning a degree are compelling. According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, young adults generally need at least some postsecondary education and work experience to have a decent chance of getting a good job. 

How can higher education institutions redefine student success, help all types of students, and stay agile in a changing world? We’ve listed four key recommendations for institutions to consider when building their student success programs.

1. Measuring Success: The Shift to Improved Student Outcomes

For years, higher education focused on both encouraging everyone to go to college and trying to get more applications, which meant valuing information like SAT and GPA scores, number of applications, acceptance rates, and U.S. News college rankings. Now, federal and state aid programs have shifted to measuring the outcomes of student populations.

“We’re able to democratize insights and information at all levels of the university.”

Shane Topping Director of Product Marketing for Higher Education Workday

“The reality is we’ve flipped that model on its head to become more outcomes-based: How many students receiving funding are graduating, how long does it take them to graduate, and what percentage are getting jobs X years after graduation,” says Shane Topping, Workday director of product marketing for higher education. “We need to make sure we’re getting more people through college and completing key outcomes rather than just focusing on getting learners to college.” 

The benefits of attending a higher education institution aren’t solely economic, such as getting the right job or increasing future earnings. Although growing lifetime earning potential is extremely important and the reason most students attend higher ed institutions, there are many intangible benefits that can’t be defined by academic curriculum.

Building important connections with other students, for example, can have long-term ramifications for post-college success, opening up access to jobs and other opportunities. Other benefits include improved happiness and civic engagement plus developing skills that can be used in careers and life.

To help with these outcomes, institutions should double down on providing students with a reason to stay. That begins with clearly conveying to students and their families how the college is right for them, but also providing a clear and flexible pathway to graduation and ensuring post-college success. After all, students need skills to compete in a global economy.

“We have to make sure we are helping the right students get to the right schools and get the support and guidance they need to successfully graduate and lead meaningful lives,” said Bawa. 

With Workday, Tallahassee Community College (TCC) created an executive team dashboard that monitored key performance indicators for student outcomes over time. This provides TCC leaders real-time insights into retention rates, success rates in gateway courses, graduation rates, and placement rates for specific programs. With quicker insights into student outcomes, TCC can make quicker decisions to best support their students’ success.  

2. Understand All Types of Learners

The contemporary learner of today is not the learner of yesteryear—a fact reinforced by COVID. 

“We already knew that demographic trends were going to affect higher ed enrollment and transform the makeup of the student body—and then the pandemic came,” says Joellen Shendy, product strategy director, Workday Student. “Now we’ve seen not only an acceleration of trends, but expectations have also changed. We’ve introduced things like hybrid learning and 24/7 access to services. The future is this new flexibility.”

Higher education enrollment has been on the decline for a decade—including a one-year drop of 4.1% from spring 2021 to spring 2022—according to data released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. With fewer traditional on-campus students enrolling out of high school, colleges are going to have to rethink their enrollment strategy. Finding, understanding, and serving new and different types of students to address these enrollment gaps is the key for higher ed institutions to sustain their mission. 

“The crunch will hit many institutions, underscoring the need for diversification in student populations—more transfers, more international students, more part-time adult learners, working parents—plus new models for learning opportunities,” says Topping.

Yet, just half of part-time students remain enrolled at an institution after their first year. And among underrepresented groups, 60% of Native American students, 65% of Black students, and 69% of Latin American students persist in college after their first year, significantly less than overrepresented groups such as Asian (88%) and white students (80%). And older students drop out of college at much higher rates than the traditional 20 years or younger age: 45.7% of students age 25 and older leave college after their first year.

“Now we’ve seen not only an acceleration of trends, but expectations have also changed.”

Joellen Shendy Joellen Shendy Product Strategy Director Workday Student

These data points mean there’s more work to do to help underrepresented and nontraditional students, especially as the enrollment of traditional students is expected to decline by 15% from 2026 to 2029. 

“The reality is among learners today, the traditional 18- to 22-year-olds are the minority,” says Topping. “It’s not the case that all students pursue college right after high school. With nearly 20 million learners any given year across the U.S., the vast majority are part time or working adults looking for flexibility. The nontraditional should be considered traditional at this point.”

For nontraditional students—including the 36 million Americans who have “some college, no credential or degree”—institutions can meet these learners’ needs as they seek to upskill, reskill, earn non-degree credentials, or change careers. And with the pandemic precipitating a steeper enrollment decline—particularly in community colleges—postsecondary institutions should consider new learner models that attract, retain, and engage new kinds of learners who may never have set foot on a college campus.

Higher education institutions can also vary the pace of course delivery, how and when courses are taught, individual goals and expectations, and more—making learning more time-friendly, “snackable,” and flexible. They also need to rethink the traditional transcript to give students a better way to demonstrate their true competencies and skills to potential employers.

A deeper understanding of all students requires deeper insights and tracking, which starts with data. Getting meaningful data at the granular level you need by using spreadsheets is hard and time-consuming. And even if a system is more modern, the challenge is extracting all this data from many disparate sources. In the best-case scenario, higher ed leaders get rear-view insights.

For nontraditional students—including the 36 million Americans who have “some college, no credential or degree”—institutions can meet their needs as they seek to upskill, reskill, earn non-degree credentials, or change careers.

“Now you can surface real-time data on dashboards,” says Shendy. “Your staff knows—and can quickly react to—what is occurring within your student population. You don’t have to stop the clock, pull a report, put it in Excel, and then marry and massage the data from disparate sources, which can take days and weeks. By then, it can be too late.”

By designing experiences based on a deeper understanding of students through data that transcends basic demographic segmentation, colleges and universities can better pinpoint what makes students tick—and head off the problems that can derail their education.

3. Update Systems to Better Support the Digital Experience

Academic leaders will be looking for ways to reassure prospects, applicants, and students that modern tools will support their educational journey. And students will be looking more closely at how easy or difficult it is to manage their education. 

Unfortunately, many of the legacy ERP systems in place are decades older than the students they’re meant to serve. And if institutions supplement those legacy systems with multiple boutique solutions, it can create inconsistent experiences for learners to navigate and make it time-consuming and costly for colleges to manage.

“Many of the systems supporting the student experience were built for a much different time: the 1990s,” says Topping. “The iPhone wasn’t out yet, and the internet was just becoming a mainstream thing where people would put forms and documents online. The student systems were meant to house transactions. They weren’t thinking, ‘How will this impact the student, and what will make it easier for them to register, pay a bill, or check on financial aid?’”

In a recent Workday study “Closing the Acceleration Gap: Toward Sustainable Digital Transformation,” 68% of higher ed leaders said, “There is a growing gap between where our business is and where it needs to be in order to compete.” The study also discovered that higher education’s internal operations were the least digital of all industries—making it exceptionally challenging for leaders to gain real-time insights across their institutions. 

Real-time data allows administrators to more accurately plan and better support their institution’s ability to offer the right courses at the right time. And having it all in one place, as it is in Workday, helps administrators more organically surface the data to address important needs, such as for housing, while making it easier for students to easily pay their bills or know where they’re assigned. 

“We’ve heard that a lot from our customers, that access to information at all levels of their institution, especially if it lives in Workday, is just simpler,” says Topping. “It frees them up to do the jobs they really want to do. They can quickly assess what’s going on because we can create these personalized dashboard experiences. And it allows them to focus on what’s most important based on real-time insights.” 

As campus leaders rethink their enrollment strategies and delivery models and look for ways to cut costs and increase revenue, they should create a more agile technology infrastructure for finance, human resources, and student administration functions. 

Ideally, leaders need to be able to quickly realize value with any system. Unfortunately, the systems in place today aren’t built to accommodate changes without costly customizations, integrations, or bolted-on applications. Institutions have to maintain these customizations, which is every leader’s nightmare. Every three to four years, they have to basically go through a re-implementation to make the customizations remain.

“Digital support tools have to be flexible enough to adapt to each institution and each student cohort’s unique needs,” says Shendy. “When so much data is available in one system, student advisors can easily create personalized plans and reach out sooner to at-risk learners.”

With the modernization of technology available to support the student experience, institutions now have more options to assist students in new ways. A modern cloud-based system that eliminates friction and can service the software without disruption not only delivers on students’ digital expectations, but it can also help administrators understand the “why” behind student choices so they can continue to tailor offerings. 

At Furman University, students were previously challenged with stressful academic planning and registration experiences. One example of this was the sheer amount of paper-based activities that were required to complete tasks. Workday helped Furman reduce these barriers for their learners. One student explained she had an emergency that required her to commute back home on the same day as her registration appointment. Luckily, she was able to pull over at a rest stop, log in to her mobile application, and complete her registration appointment with just a few clicks.      

By shifting from clunky legacy systems to a cloud-native solution, administrators can ensure success beyond the student side of the equation.

4. Meet Students Everywhere With a Rich Experience

Whether learning is delivered in the classroom, online, or in a hybrid model, students of all backgrounds are hungry for more robust digital services. How hungry? A whopping 96% of college students say a high-quality digital experience is important to their campus satisfaction.

Higher ed institutions need to provide students with an experience that matches their consumer life. Information must be easily accessible from everywhere, including mobile, and timely suggestions should surface the most relevant tasks for a student to acknowledge or complete. 

Modern higher ed platforms can make it easy for students to get the guidance they need when they need it. Smith College partnered with Workday to help streamline the college’s systems and get closer to a single source of truth. Workday’s emphasis on user experience helped support their efforts to use technology to improve campus culture and enhance collaboration among students, staff, professors, parents, and others who make up the Smith College community.

Students can also request and carry out meetings with advisors and professors, or even grant a parent or guardian access to review their schedule or make a payment on their account. And thanks to active engagement tools that generate real-time alerts and tasks, students can take proactive steps, make connections, and move along their educational journey without feeling overwhelmed or stuck.

At Stevens Institute of Technology, a centralized view of student information, student employment, student finance, advising, registration, and student records makes information easily accessible by both staff and students. One student describes her new experience as “integrated, user-friendly, accessible by both browser and mobile device, and really responsive to our student needs.” 

The goal is to better engage and serve students in the moments that matter to ensure success throughout their education and beyond. A better experience will keep students informed and on task. Using a dynamically changing dashboard, insights are seamlessly presented to the people who interact most frequently with students. So institutions are able to identify students at risk of failing or withdrawing and can provide proactive rather than reactive assistance to keep them on the path to success.

“I think a lot of leaders would agree that sometimes at a university, who sees data and who actually gets reports is very selective,” says Topping. “In Workday, you could secure all information so a type of worker only sees certain rows of a report. Basically we’re able to democratize insights and information at all levels of the university. The quicker the insights, the quicker you can react.”

Redefining Student Success for a Brighter Future

Student success is at the core of every institution’s mission, whether that’s recruiting students, keeping them on the path to completion, or ensuring their well-being and sense of purpose and belonging. And for many institutions, student success doesn’t end at graduation. It can include finding the right job and—as not every outcome of college is economic—honing the skills and building the connections to thrive no matter where life takes them. 

Higher education institutions can help all types of students by staying agile to keep up with change. By using technology to provide solutions tailored to each student’s needs, all learning institutions—from community colleges to public and private universities—can reduce barriers to their students’ success. This includes getting quicker insights into student outcomes to provide students with a clear and flexible pathway to graduation, updating outdated legacy systems with modern cloud-based technology, and designing rich experiences based on a deeper understanding of students through data.

By creating a more engaged educational experience, institutions can solidify their own futures while empowering graduates to tackle the world’s most complex problems.

More Reading