John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Policies Make a Difference in Student Success

October 31, 2012John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

I am going to open with the title again: “policies make a difference in student success.”

Recently I wrote a blog posting contrasting what “access” institutions do vs. “success” institutions. One of the big differences are their policies. The primary emphasis in “access” institutions is to have policies that promote easy and immediate access, and thus insure revenue from first term headcount. The historic view in these institutions has been that policies that compel too many required behaviors on the part of students represent “barriers” to success. I do not doubt for a minute the commitment of these institutions to promoting access and opportunity for students. “Success” institutions on the other hand know that certain policies are more likely to produce academically successful students, even though those policies stipulate that certain things are required for students.

We all are searching for ways to improve student performance. I like to urge the institutions I work with to focus on what they control. And their policies are something they control. I acknowledge there are important Federal government policies that you don’t control at the institutional level, especially in financial aid. For publicly funded state institutions, there are also state policies, which transcend the control of individual institutions. But overwhelmingly the majority of policies that confront students are those created by people like you and me who work at the institutional level.

I first learned experientially about the power of policies to change human behaviors when I arrived in South Carolina in early 1967, not even three years after the landmark Civil Rights Act and only two years after the Voting Rights Act. Because I was white, many whites felt they could—and therefore did—express to me their commitment to resist these new laws. They assured me that the federal government could not make them do certain things. They were wrong of course. Thanks to the federal law a vast range of behaviors changed in terms of employment, interstate commerce and travel. And we all began to eat together; use the same doors, toilets, drinking fountains together; go to the movies together; sit together on public transportation; and, most importantly, go to school together. And then, date and marry each other.

So I am big believer in having to get the policy levers right at the campus level.

Here are some of the policies that I think are particularly important:

  • probationary admission (monitored requirements—do you stipulate them or simply admit students to sink or swim?)
  • eligibility (including requirement) for on- campus residence
  • participation in orientation (cost, availability of need based scholarships; elective vs. required)
  • placement testing
  • preparation for placement testing (testing is high stakes, but few places offer students preparation for the all important tests)
  • advising (seeing an advisor—is this optional or required?)
  • enforcing course prerequisites (do you or don’t you?)
  • last date to apply
  • last date to start classes (how late in the term do you allow students to actually start—I commonly hear of students being allowed to enter a course after it is up to two weeks underway!)
  • last date to withdraw from course with no penalty (do your policies encourage early commitment and best efforts or the opposite,  allow students to coast along with minimal effort because they know they can drop right up the end of the term?)
  • attendance (should you have a special attendance policy for new students? Think about it folks: why do athletes graduate at a higher level? Because their attendance in monitored)
  • satisfactory progress (definition of)
  • probation (will there be a program of structured support or can students just continue to do business engaging in the same behaviors that got them on probation in the first place?)
  • readmission post suspension (are there any special requirements for participation in structured support activities, such as tutoring?)
  • participation in high impact practices, particularly first-year seminars, academic support, learning communities;
  • summer bridge (to whom do you make this available; of whom do you require it?)
  • Supplemental Instruction (which is optional) vs. “structured learning assistance” (which is required for certain students)
  • declaration of major (is this required prematurely—for example, at time of matriculation?)

And this is only a beginning list. I suggest you undertake a “policy audit” of your rules with the central question: will this rule contribute to a greater probability of student success. Getting our policies right is all a part of the larger strategy of taking more responsibility for student success. The alternative is continuing to blame the victim.


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