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How Higher Education Institutions Are Combatting Declining Enrollment

  • 4 Min Read

To combat declining enrollment, higher ed institutions deploy more flexible learning models to improve student success

Student success means a lot more than meeting academic targets. To meaningfully improve the student experience and improve retention and graduation rates, many institutions are adopting a more holistic approach to addressing the student success challenge.

In November 2021, Jeff Borden—D2L’s former Vice President of Academics and Chief Academic—helped unpack some of those creative approaches during Student Success Reimagined, a lively D2L webinar that attracted over 550 attendees.

From using analytics to flag early academic warning signs (which are often rooted in external factors) to setting up support services to foster community and personal connection, the panel—which included a diverse range of faculty including Rachel Clapp-Smith, Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at Purdue University Northwest, Elizabeth Burns, Senior Success Coach at Sinclair Community College and Dr. Tim Renick, Executive Director of the National Institute for Student Success at Georgia State University—broke down the various ways that their institutions have tried to improve the student experience.

The Biggest Obstacles to Student Success in Higher Education

We took the opportunity to survey the audiencewhich was completed by 171 attendeesabout the biggest obstacles to student success and the approaches their institutions are taking to resolve them.

Unsurprisingly, declining enrollments were top of mind for most respondents and something that many expect to see continue even as their own institutions turn to technology solutions to help improve student success with more flexible learning models.

We asked Dr. Borden to help contextualize the survey results below:

Student Success: Reimagined Survey #1

At 41%, the majority of respondents indicated that the top way their institution had fostered student success during the pandemic was by establishing new technology to support hybrid/high-flex learning models.

“HyFlex is a moving target and fairly ambiguous to almost everyone involved,” said Dr. Borden. “Even if the eLearning manager has a sense of what it means, it does not mean there is an agreement of that vision by all stakeholders, especially faculty who are the practitioners and operationalization of the strategy.”

Other factors that impact student success in a more holistic way garnered less attention from survey respondents’ institutions. Financial support programs (17%), diversity, equity and/or inclusion initiatives (14%), mental health initiatives (11%), accessible/assistive learning (10%) and supporting socioeconomic burdens (7%) were all approaches implemented in varying degrees to help support student success during the pandemic.

“While these are seen as disparate factors, notice that they are all “non-cognitive” in nature. The pandemic really put a spotlight on the notion that student success is far more than what happens in a classroom. Students…people, need support through relationships, networks, mindset and more.”

Higher Education Concerns in a Post-Covid World

Student Success: Reimagined Survey #2

At 30%, lower enrollment was pegged as the top concern of survey respondents pinpointing the greatest drop-off for students at their institution and/or at other institutions.

“Higher ed is declining in enrollments anyway,” said Dr. Borden. “But COVID sped this up tremendously.”

Absences (online and in person) came in a close second at 29%. “They’re purely a condition of the COVID context we find ourselves in,” said Dr. Borden. “Schools are asking faculty not to be overly strict or ‘hard’ on students due to COVID-related issues. Additionally, some schools have given students full control over whether they attend in person, online, or by watching a video. For some faculty that is completely new, problematic, and uncomfortable. But whether they agree with it or not they’re being mandated to allow it.”

Disengagement (23%), financial pressure (8%), incomplete coursework/learning gaps (8%) and on-time graduation concerns (2%) rounded out the list of top student drop-offs for survey respondents.

Student Success: Reimagined Survey #3

Perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of survey respondents (43%) identified the need to boost declining enrollment and re-enrollment rates as the most important pain point to solve for in the coming years.

“No new enrollments means classes are cut, staff or faculty may be furloughed, and existing programs go under a tremendous amount of scrutiny, said Dr. Borden. “Everyone’s feeling the pinch and nobody’s sure when we’ll see a return to normal.”

Among other pain points to solve for in the coming years, survey respondents cited improving mental health programs for students and faculty (21%), graduation delays and drop-outs (13%), funding more diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives (13%) and establishing more financial assistance programs (10%).

“At the end of the day, it once again shows that there is no magic bullet for success. But it also shows that there are “clusters” of signals worth watching. On the pragmatic side, finances matter. Money matters! But on the well-being side of a student’s life, we are again seeing more administrators starting to ask how we can measure, intervene, and treat those issues as well. While this is likely years late, it is wonderful that so many schools are looking to work with the ‘whole’ learner.”

Student Success: Reimagined

In a world of flexible learning, where students (and faculty) want to learn and teach where and when they want, what can we do as higher ed professionals to rise to the challenge and ensure students succeed in their studies?

In this webinar, Dr. Jeff Borden, Chief Academic & VP of Academic Affairs at D2L, talks all things student success with our special guests Dr. Tim Renick, Executive Director at the National Institute for Student Success, Elizabeth Burns, Senior Success Coach at Sinclair Community College, and Rachel Clapp-Smith, Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at Purdue University Northwest.

Watch the webinar now

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Table of Contents

  1. The Biggest Obstacles to Student Success in Higher Education
  2. Higher Education Concerns in a Post-Covid World
  3. Student Success: Reimagined