Everyone in higher education knows that student affairs staffer who goes out of their way to ensure every student request is fulfilled. Or the self-starter motivated by a personal passion for helping students overcome challenges. And, of course, there’s the department head who gladly tries any new process or protocol that might improve student success and outcomes.

At first glance, their characteristics seem like the ideal student support team–but looking closer, subtle warning signs lurk beneath the surface. That staff member who goes to any length to meet students’ needs might be undermining their long-term success. The self-starter’s autonomy could be standing in the way of a cohesive team dynamic. By the same token, the leader who readily switches from one priority to another may be unintentionally creating whiplash for their team.

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Sometimes we inadvertently create obstacles to student success through our own actions. Despite our best intentions, the best interests of the student can get lost. Identifying and addressing these obstacles can help colleges become more student-centric–enhancing student support as well as student success and outcomes. Here are five common pitfalls that colleges encounter as they undertake that difficult, but essential, task.

Five barriers to student success

Team of rivals. The most talented teams bring together staff who have extensive individual expertise in their role. These teams are full of accomplished, dedicated student success experts–who all seem to do things differently. Too much autonomy and inconsistency can be two sides of the same coin. When every adviser is approaching student support differently, students themselves notice the difference, and begin to wonder why they’re receiving different kinds of support. Imagine if you had an adviser who focused solely on immediate needs such as registration or dropping a class, while your roommate’s adviser spent more time on long-term goals and personal development. You might be put off by what appear to be inequities in support.

When this happens, the best response is to align not just the student support team, but the entire institution, around one student support playbook. While the goal should be to build an infrastructure that adapts to the needs and experiences of different students, having a clear vision and shared lexicon around student success is key.

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Initiative boomerang. These institutions start a new initiative–one with great promise, but one that requires big changes in student supports–only to turn around and start something else new before the first initiative is even fully underway. While every new process and initiative has the potential to make a positive impact on student success, juggling too many can leave staff and divisional leaders struggling to balance competing priorities. And when initiatives start to fail, staff motivation and engagement can slide. If the first thing your team does after hearing about a new initiative is roll their eyes at the “flavor of the month,” it will be tough to inspire the type of learning and commitment that’s required to make a change. Following a tried and true change management framework can help programs seamlessly integrate institutional or departmental initiatives into their day-to-day work and maintain a clear course.

Department of redundancy department. Oftentimes, frontline student support teams’ emails don’t just get sent once or twice; they go out multiple times from different offices. A financial aid adviser might arrange to meet with a student to talk about finances the very same week that housing staff meets with them to talk about issues paying for room and board. At the surface, this may look like covering all the bases, but it really speaks to a lack of coordination and unnecessary overlap. The unintended consequence is that repetition leads to confusion.

Eventually, if students receive too much communication that feels repetitive or redundant, they may tune out completely. Ironically, student support staff may feel they are reaching out to students without guidance and outreach of their own. Every staff member and department should have a clear picture of their roles and responsibilities and how they fit into an institutional strategy focused on student success. Institutions should map out the entire student journey and identify the key services involved in each stage. Doing so not only improves student satisfaction, but also saves time among frontline staff who can support the next student in need.

Undercover programs. These institutions provide a full range of supports and services, but nobody knows about them because they aren’t designed and promoted in ways that are visible to students. Effectively supporting today’s college-going population means rethinking standard operating procedures. Advising centers that used to be open from 9-to-5 are expanding hours and opening drop-in locations to accommodate student parents, working adults, and commuters. Students are now accessing timely updates and resources through social media, apps, and digital content instead of being constrained to in-person meetings.

But even as new and creative approaches to student success sprout up, many institutions struggle to promote participation. If programs operate undercover, they might as well not exist. Institutions should develop outreach plans and design regular awareness campaigns–after all, they have new students every year–so that students get the maximum benefit.

Helicopter administrators. All too often, the arcane systems and procedures of higher education can baffle even the most attentive students. If a first-year student wanders into the Student Life office in search of the Career Center (which happens to be across campus, tucked away behind the bookstore) the first tendency of many staff members will be to walk the student there. Sometimes, that’s the right approach. But if it happens all the time, it’s an unnecessary drain on time. The impulse to take care of every issue for every student, while well-intentioned, is often self-defeating.

Remember the old adage about teaching someone to fish? Ultimately, the most successful student affairs teams are those that are able to help students develop a stronger sense of agency, self-direction, and motivation. Working with students on critical skills like communication, time-management, and problem-solving equips them to advance their own success and frees staff members from the pressure of managing their every move.

Sometimes a healthy dose of introspection is really what’s needed to identify and address all-too-common pitfalls. Redesigning support for students requires us to take a close look at what’s working, and be ready to overcome anything standing in the way of student success.

About the Author:

Melissa Leavitt, Ph.D., is a strategy manager at InsideTrack.


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