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The Three Greatest Obstacles to Improving Student Success?
Higher Ed Insiders Cite State Funding, Faculty Incentives, and Administrative Silos

A diverse group of 85 higher education leaders and experts identified insufficient state funding of public institutions of higher education as the most significant obstacle to improving American students’ postsecondary outcomes. But aside from the shortfall in that critical public investment, respondents to the Spring 2016 Ithaka S+R Higher Ed Insights Survey flagged institutional policies, practices, and culture as the greatest impediments to improving student success. The most promising solutions to those obstacles, according to respondents, are greater incentives for faculty to focus on teaching and learning, and better evidence on how to bring student success initiatives to scale.

In fall 2015, Ithaka S+R recruited a group of 111 higher education administrators and experts with diverse backgrounds and perspectives to take part in semi-annual surveys on issues of national importance in higher education. In addition to sharing the panel’s views with the broader higher education community, the results of the Higher Ed Insights surveys help guide Ithaka S+R’s research agenda.

Today, we release the report of findings from the Spring 2016 survey, administered between June 15 and July 11, 2016. The 85 respondents were asked to rate a list of obstacles to changes at US higher education institutions that would promote student success and a list of potential solutions to those obstacles. Survey questions focused specifically on obstacles and solutions in three key areas: motivation and culture, funding and resources, and institutional structures and practices.

Respondents deemed insufficient state funding for public colleges and universities to be the most significant obstacle to student success, and the most urgent to address. As several respondents noted in open-ended comments, state disinvestment in public institutions has both raised costs for the majority of students and limited those institutions’ capacity to meet students’ needs.

Beyond that single—important—public policy issue, respondents gave the highest significance ratings to a number of obstacles internal to institutions: (i) incentives for faculty that deemphasize student success and teaching, (ii) administrative silos, and (iii) faculty resistance to change. When asked which actors would need to change their behavior the most to improve student success, respondents ranked senior leaders of higher education institutions first, followed by faculty.

That emphasis on institutional factors is further reinforced by respondents’ favored solutions to student success obstacles. The two solutions rated most promising were (i) rewarding faculty for experimentation and innovation in teaching and learning and (ii) promoting research on bringing student success initiatives to scale.

A second theme of the favored solutions was collaboration across institutions. Specifically, respondents viewed as highly promising (i) increasing collaboration among PreK-12 systems, community colleges, and four-year colleges to improve articulation and (ii) developing a PreK-20 unit record data system. Institutional leaders would have key roles to play in those efforts, but as several respondents pointed out in open-ended responses, both would benefit from state- and federal-government support and coordination.

While there was general agreement across respondents on the most significant obstacles and most promising solutions, there are some important distinctions between respondents from different institutional contexts. Respondents affiliated with public institutions of higher education generally viewed the obstacles presented in the survey as more significant impediments to change than respondents affiliated with private not-for-profit institutions. This pattern is most pronounced with respect to obstacles pertaining to institutional administrators and administrative structures, such as (i) frequent turnover among administrators, (ii) the presence of administrative silos, and (iii) a lack of strategic change management capacity among institutional leaders.

One of the goals of the survey is to inform priorities for further research, by Ithaka S+R and others, and the findings point to several important topics for investigation and solution design. Faculty incentives featured prominently in the responses, suggesting several promising avenues of research, such as (i) identifying areas of misalignment in contexts where incentives are not oriented to student success, (ii) unpacking the process by which exemplary institutions have successfully redesigned faculty incentives, and (iii) designing and testing new incentive structures that promote innovative and success-oriented teaching are all promising avenues of research. Similarly, the survey findings support the value of better evidence and guidance on how to bring student success initiatives to scale, and the process of change management at higher education institutions.

Ithaka S+R has delved into these topics with our case studies in educational transformation, and we have begun to operationalize models for institutional change with our Educational Transformation Assessment;  the survey’s findings suggest we should continue those efforts and focus on developing concrete, actionable resources for institutional leaders.

Do you agree with our panel members about the most significant obstacles and most promising solutions? Have thoughts on topics for future Higher Ed Insights surveys? Join the discussion in comments, or contact us.

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