The key to student success isn’t buried in the footnotes of an academic journal or hidden in a data algorithm. Institutions can learn everything they need to know about improving student outcomes by listening to students themselves.

Personalized student support — delivered digitally, over the phone, or in person — reveals telling insights about the student experience, and helps institutions provide the support students need to reach their goals. When this support focuses on noncognitive skill development, students build the capacity to thrive in and outside the classroom, and institutions build the capacity for ongoing improvement.

But we know that providing this support isn’t easy. Earlier this year, we published a report identifying the most common challenges that can derail student support programs. They revealed that students, staff and leadership all have a vital role to play in enhancing student success.

Here are the fundamentals of student support for students, staff and leadership.

Fundamentals for Students

Foster lifelong success skills

Along with their degrees, students should leave higher education with the skills that support lifelong success. It can be tough to squeeze developmental skills into student meetings, especially when rosters are bulging and deadlines loom. But if student support teams can squeeze in just a few new questions and phrases into student meetings — something as simple as asking “why?” — students get the chance to build critical skills like time management, problem-solving and perseverance.

Personalize support for every learner

Success skills can help students’ potential skyrocket — and that’s true for every learner, no matter their age, background or career stage. But not everyone benefits from the same support strategies. Tweaking details like messaging, delivery and timing of student meetings can personalize communication while staying true to the same core approach.

Take the stigma out of receiving help

Too few students take the initiative to seek support. If things are going well, they may not feel there’s a need; if things aren’t going well, shame, stigma and feeling overwhelmed can keep them from reaching out. One fix is adopting a proactive outreach strategy. Proactive outreach reaffirms that student support is for all students, not just those who are deemed “at risk.” Plus, it can help build relationships before problems arise.

Fundamentals for Staff

Unite around a shared student support methodology

Working in an environment where everyone takes responsibility for student success is a good problem to have. But when each staff member takes a different approach, the resulting cacophony creates an inconsistent student experience. To make a measurable impact on student outcomes, student support teams should align around a single methodology — like a developmental approach that enhances students’ long-term success.

Collaborate and coordinate with other student-facing teams

Don’t let your focus on students distract you from what other teams are doing. When staff don’t know who is responsible for what, students don’t know either. Too often, support becomes hit-or-miss. One student might be contacted multiple times in one day, while another falls through the cracks. To better understand the functions of other teams — and shore up any gaps — create a student journey map that shows when students are interacting with which services.

Use multichannel outreach

Why do so many institutions rely on face-to-face meetings as the gold standard of student support? Relying on in-person meetings can strain staff time and resources and limit support for students who need it most. Multichannel communication won’t replace one-on-one appointments. But it will create significantly more opportunity to connect via text, phone, email and other modes.

Fundamentals for Leadership

Match institutional goals to staff objectives

When frontline staff don’t understand institutional goals like enrollment or retention targets, the stakes may feel low for their own performance. Tracking metrics like number of phone calls or emails can be important, but unless the connection to student outcomes is made clear, staff engagement will lag. When establishing evaluation frameworks, it’s critical to take into account what makes the biggest impact on student success. Always measure what matters most.

Provide professional development opportunities

The risks of lackluster professional development start with a disengaged staff and snowball to threaten student and institutional outcomes. Design trainings and workshops to address the key skills and competencies required for effective student engagement. Then help staff put learning into practice through ongoing quality assurance. Strong professional development can realign departments reeling from turnover and create a more cohesive team dynamic.

Lead transformational change

When staff start complaining about the flavor-of-the-month, or saying they don’t want to change their work to suit the latest fad, you have initiative fatigue on your hands. The initiatives worth investing in are those that will create lasting transformation. Start by demonstrating buy-in at the highest levels and generating awareness and excitement about the new approach. When you equip staff with the knowledge and skills to see a new initiative through, motivation will follow.

See results from colleges and universities that have embraced these fundamentals.

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