We’re in the midst of a higher education crisis. Colleges and universities are struggling in every way—retention, equity, graduation rates, faculty-to-student ratios, outdated policies and processes, faculty burnout, student success. The list goes on. The main reason these problems persist is because we’re neglecting to address the way universities are designed at the very core.
Imagine renovating an old house. It’s old, dated, and dirty, so it’s going to need some work. You knock out a couple of walls, replace the floors, repaint, install new appliances, and make other cosmetic changes so it’s livable and comfortable. A few weeks later, things start to go wrong. Something starts leaking, the ceiling starts cracking, and you find out there’s black mold growing in the walls. You’ve changed everything on the outside, but at the core, the house is falling apart. All that initial work, money, and time was for nothing. Now you have to rip everything out and start over to fix the real problems.
Colleges and universities often find themselves in the same boat. They’ve created new programs and initiatives to improve the student experience and invested time and money in infrastructures, events, and recruitment and retention efforts. But at the core, the university is still operating under the same outdated policies and silos that push students away. Students still have to jump through hoops to get in contact with a faculty member or get outside course credits to transfer. They have to wait for hours or days for their scheduled advising appointment to roll around. They have to trek all over campus to find the financial aid office and then go back to that office several times to make sure they’re set for the next semester. What should take five minutes takes hours or days because universities don’t operate efficiently.
If we’re going to make real progress toward improving equity, retention, and student success, we have to start at the core.
College Is Inherently Flawed
College caters to a select group of people whose parents went to college and who grew up with exposure to the higher education system. First-generation, low-income, disadvantaged, and international students are more likely to face challenges when navigating the college system. For example, students are left to deal with:
- Hidden curriculum that consists of unwritten rules and unspoken expectations students are expected to know
- Confusing jargon
- Complicated, wordy websites
- University holiday schedules that don’t accommodate students staying on campus over holiday breaks
- Financial aid, advising, and counseling offices spread out all over campus
- Unapproachable faculty
- Uncertainty of where to go or who to ask when they have a question or need help
- Chatbots, AI, and other technology that doesn’t address the need for human connection and the immediacy required when problems arise
- Decentralized operations (division of student affairs, division of undergraduate studies, division of marketing, etc.)
- Uncertainty about what resources are available and how to access them
Facing these issues alone is challenging enough, but adding classes, jobs, family obligations, health concerns, etc. makes it much more difficult if not impossible to balance. This is where retention suffers and students are lost.
The good news is, losing students is preventable. It will just require time and effort to identify the barriers at your institution and take necessary action to fix them. It’s definitely not an easy feat, but it will be more than worth the time and effort. When core issues are addressed first, it becomes easier to invest in new programs and initiatives and give them the foundation they need to grow on.
Masking the real issues with quick fixes might seem like the easiest solution, especially since faculty are already burdened with work and don’t have much time for anything else. One way to start is to pick an item from the list above and evaluate current processes around it. Identify what steps might need to be taken to make improvements and then start taking action. Real change can only come when the core issues are solved because that’s what has the biggest impact on the student experience.