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Article | Fiscal resiliency

What it means to be “student-ready” in today’s higher education landscape

Underscoring the importance of campus culture and building relationships

This blog summarizes the key takeaways from our fiscal resiliency podcast, episode 14.

Across the thousands of higher education institutions nationwide, colleges and universities take a variety of unique approaches when it comes to ensuring student readiness and success.

Traditionally, when considering how to meet student expectations, institutions are heavily focused on academic choices – and they also spend a lot of time aligning housing, extracurricular activities and campus safety measures – to meet students’ needs. Yet, while those are critical components of “being student-ready” in the modern higher education climate, those factors are merely the tip of the iceberg.

In our recent Higher Ed Advisor podcast, Managing Director and fiscal resiliency specialist, Christine Smith, explored the topic of student readiness and the innovative ways institutions are redesigning and aligning student support services and campus cultures to be student-ready. Katie Aranda, Associate Dean of Student Success Initiatives at Iowa Wesleyan University (IWU), and Paul Shepherd, Director for Student Development and Success at the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System (Minnesota State or System) joined us to discuss how their institutions are driving innovative strategies to address the realities both the industry and students face today and ultimately, to enhance student persistence and completion.

Facing today’s higher education realities

Baker Tilly has observed a change in the student readiness scene, which looks much different than it did 10 or 20 years ago. Research shows that currently, there are significantly more students at the poverty level. Further, many more students are not completing degrees that they start. More than ever, money is the main reason students leave college. There is no doubt that the pandemic has substantially impacted students and institutions. Such numbers are forcing institutional leaders to reflect on how or if they are fulfilling the promise made to students when they set expectations across the student lifecycle culminating with degree or certificate attainment.

Defining a “student-ready institution”

While the term “student-ready” can mean different things to institutions and their continuum of stakeholders, Aranda emphasized that at IWU, the term means maintaining a focus on developing relationships with students, facilitating connections and giving every student a sense of belonging. This mindset starts when a prospective student visits campus and continues all the way through graduation.

Shepherd added that the key to “student-readiness” is being able to welcome a diverse group of students into a new environment by honoring their strengths, addressing their individual needs and helping them achieve their goals.

Smith noted the crucial role institutions have to meet these growing needs even within a fiscally constrained higher education environment. Both Aranda and Shepherd agreed that student-ready institutions make sure relevant and necessary resources are available and accessible to help a diverse student body navigate a college environment and enjoy success (in all its various definitions) throughout their educational journey. They then revealed how they are accomplishing this. (Tune in to find out!)

Supporting student needs and success with data

The mission and values of college and universities include the pursuit for students to be successful and have a fulfilling higher education experience, but how can institutions measure this? Smith, Aranda and Shepherd explored a variety of examples about how each of their organizations have transformed through applying lessons learned, evolving intervention approaches and expecting connectivity and data sharing between functions, which directly interact with students. 

Shepherd relayed that the approach at Minnesota State started with a full understanding of the available data. Their teams noticed their institutional data mirrored the national data. For instance, 37% of students at Minnesota State’s institutions reported food insecurity over the previous 30 days the survey was taken. After analyzing the eye-opening statistics, leaders evaluated their campus’ current resources and began having conversations across the system – from community and student organizations to staff members in different departments – about how to share effective best practices and community partner relationships across its colleges and universities. Now, every school within the System has food pantries on campus.

“We know having a food pantry doesn’t solve the problem,” Shepherd points out. “But it demonstrates a commitment to trying to do more in this space and align our programs and services to help address relevant barriers our students are facing.”

Recognizing that their students are members of both the campus and the community where they live and work, Minnesota State’s institutions have evolved in terms of their partnerships. They recently partnered with the local United Way to leverage technology and available tools, like the City’s 2-1-1 program, a national and statewide program that gives individuals access to a wide range of needs when they call the number. Through this alliance, students will receive referrals for resources at their campus and community 24/7 by texting the number. Shepherd explains this strategy has allowed the institution to “meet students where they are at” and proactively respond to the diversity of their student body in terms of identities and outside of campus roles they hold.

Leveraging student success centers and individualized support systems

Aranda further discussed the criticality of understanding the individual needs of each student. She noted, as Shepherd did, that some students experience food insecurity. However, she added that students may struggle with other issues, such as affording a winter coat, having time management skills or even coping with a death in the family, and are unsure who or where to turn to in their community and at their institution. With this mindset as the backdrop, IWU recently changed its academic probation process to be more individualized, allowing the system to account for incidents that university leaders had not previously considered. Aranda explains, “There are so many reasons why students are struggling in the classroom, and (we) try to work with faculty and staff to identify students that we can connect with resources (early on).”

Another area that has evolved to provide personalized solutions and resources is IWU’s student success center. The center has grown from two staff members to eight over the last three years in proactive efforts to serve their students. Additionally, the University has added student success coaches who meet with prospective students when they visit, get to know the student’s family, answer questions before and during the student’s tenure at IWU and go as far as to assist with graduate school opportunities, jobs and careers. “I think these are one of the most important positions on campus,” Aranda said. She adds how these integrated support systems provide more than tools and resources for students and their families; they create a sense of belonging, something students seek as well.

In summary: culture, connections, creativity

To wrap up the engaging discussion, Smith asked Aranda and Shepherd about the most important aspect for institutions to keep in mind as their own organizations remain agile to meet the changing needs of their students.

Shepherd stressed the value of institutions thinking creatively and innovatively – in terms of campus programs, partnerships and use of technology. Aranda agreed, and further emphasized the importance of understanding the changing “student,” as these days, there is an array of students, such as the working student, the adult learner, the student with a family, among others. Each of these versions of a “student” has a unique set of needs that must be met to support positive outcomes.

Whether it is individually, through shared services or consortiums, or as a system, colleges and universities are implementing unique and necessary approaches to address the issues students face today. An institution’s approach to student readiness and success depends on the tools, resources and integrated systems in place as well as the campus culture and a focus on relationships to understand individual student needs and solutions. Providing individualized and proactive support (across all functions and roles at the institution) is key if a college or university wants its students to truly have their needs met, their questions and concerns heard and addressed and their educational journey following a path that will ultimately result in success.

For more information about readying your institution to enhance student success and fiscal resiliency, or to learn how Baker Tilly higher education specialists can help, contact our team.

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Christine M. Smith
Managing Director
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