Have you ever experienced something overwhelming? Something you felt was so hard to understand that it was almost paralyzing? You likely felt a loss of control and frustration. This is the general feeling that many students experience when they make a commitment to go back to school. While going to college is always talked about as being the next big step out of high school, for many students, college is an opportunity they squeeze into their day between getting the kids off to school and themselves to work on time. In addition to navigating their daily schedules, working, adult students pursue their dreams of higher education during thirty-minute lunch breaks and the brief periods of silence after the kids are tucked into bed.
These students often find adjusting to college after being away from school for so long a challenge, but it is an adjustment that can be made easier. It is a way of looking at meeting students’ needs that takes a slightly less than traditional approach. It focuses on designing academic opportunities by proactively meeting students’ needs and finishing with a curriculum that supports their goals by achieving desired outcomes. The process starts with the end in mind.
Given the right amount of support, students from all backgrounds have the chance to be successful. Every institution offers student services designed to provide help throughout the admissions and enrollment process. Sometimes that alone is enough to get students through the fear of getting started. However, as student issues arise, institutions continue to add services to react to student challenges and address these concerns. But what could happen if an institution took the time to redesign the overall student experience in a way that anticipates the students’ needs at the outset so that barriers are removed and pathways for opportunities are cleared.
If we want to make a positive impact on students’ completion and graduation rates, we need to approach the challenge not from an institution’s perspective, but from students’ perspectives. We cannot hope to effectively serve students unless we understand the issues they face on a daily basis. Low completion and graduation rates are less about students’ abilities and more about the obstacles they face every day that many institutions tend to ignore even though systems can be designed to mitigate these interruptions. With the majority student population shifting from what was the traditional to the more non-traditional student, the design approach to curriculum and support services also needs to make a shift. Effective institutions approach designing the student experience by working their way backwards. We need to start with the goal we intend to achieve and reverse engineer a seamless pathway for student achievement.
We have an opportunity to provide every student with a structure that can help them achieve their dreams and we know this is possible because it happens every day. It happens in institutions across the United States who purposefully focus on the students they seek to serve and develop systems that best meet their needs. But what could happen if every institution approached its business model designed around the student instead of around the curriculum, faculty, and staff? Of course, it is important to offer relevant curriculum, but it is just as important to remove obstacles that prevent students from accessing and thriving as they pursue a higher education. Architects develop buildings and living spaces designed to be functional and beautiful. Higher education needs to develop programs that are both relevant and provide the level of support students need to be successful. We cannot expect to increase completion and graduation rates by applying the same tired approach. It is about designing with the results in mind—student achievement is intentional not accidental.