Chapter 10: The Post-Pandemic Student Success Imperative

by Troy D. VanAken, Ph.D.

Posted on April 12, 2022

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Like many college presidents, commencement is my favorite day on campus. This May, after more than a year of primarily virtual events, the opportunity to present diplomas to students in person reinvigorated my passion for supporting their success. As a first-generation college graduate coming from meager means, my life has been transformed by the power of education. Therefore, when each graduate walks across the stage to receive their diploma, whether on their way to a new career, graduate school, or planned service opportunity, I view their educational experience as a successful outcome.

Education can change not only the graduate’s life trajectory, but also future generations and those they will impact throughout the course of their life. From my perspective, student success in higher education represents the American Dream as defined by historian James Tuslow Adams: “Life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” I believe the situation a child is born into should not prohibit their access to higher education or their ability to reach their full potential, while acknowledging our society still has work to do to make this possible in every instance. 

Examining and enhancing student success requires the recognition of its multifaceted components, from recruitment to matriculation to graduation. But when a student’s journey is delayed or does not lead to graduation, institutions need to analyze and develop strategies to increase the likelihood of a successful outcome. These are the areas that I have focused on in my career to realize gains in student success. 

Recruitment: Student “Fit” 

The continuing downward demographic trend of high school graduates in much of the country exacerbates an already highly competitive recruitment environment for new students. Therefore, retaining more students can ease the pressure on recruitment and address inefficiencies with low enrollments in upper-level classes. To support increased retention, assessing student “fit” should be a crucial part of the conversation from the moment a prospective student connects with a campus. This requires a campus to really know what types of students succeed at their institution. Once that successful student profile is understood, the campus must either develop initiatives to address weaknesses or have the discipline to forgo accepting a student who will almost certainly not retain. This extends to ensuring financial aid is sufficient to support a student through the length of their undergraduate study at a time when rising institutional discount rates are already stretching operating budgets. Many students select a campus without a full grasp of their ability to cover the total costs. Some may use one-time funds or loans to take care of the first few semesters or years—only to find themselves unable to afford their complete program of study. The resulting lost time, debt, and potentially untransferable credits, in some cases, could have been avoided with a better assessment of “fit” during the recruitment process. 

First-Year Students: Belonging and Early Success 

A student’s sense of belonging and early success is also critical to “fit.” Studies have shown that young children who have a nurturing environment develop a sense of self and belonging and demonstrate higher levels of achievement later in life than those who do not (Foster, et al. 2016; Schweinhart, & Weikart, 1995). Similarly, a student’s first year on a college campus is a pivotal period in their educational journey, especially those entering adulthood. It is critical to seek innovative ways to assist students as they develop a sense of community and build their self-efficacy for the multitude of changes they face. The symbolism tied to the Office of the President can be a powerful tool in setting an organizational tone. While it is often impractical to personally know every student, most presidents play a role during visit days, orientation, and other ceremonial events. My wife and I frequently host students at our home during orientation, invite small groups for dinner, attend campus performances and events, regularly send emails to students, and even intentionally eat in the dining halls to interact with students when our schedules allow for it. These can be strategic opportunities to convey the clear message that all students are valued, their safety is paramount, and we are a strong, welcoming community. A sense of belonging affects motivation and persistence while also contributing to an environment where students can reach their full potential (Enayati, 2012). 

While many campuses have outstanding orientation and first-year seminar programs, they do not often benefit from the analytics an intensive retention tracking program can provide.  

Some of the most successful admission offices meticulously engineer the prospective student experience during campus tours, visit days, and the entire recruitment process. Using similar “Experience Engineering” concepts, institutions should work to design a student’s first year with an eye toward improved retention and long-term success (Carbone, 2004). While many campuses have outstanding orientation and first-year seminar programs, they do not often benefit from the analytics an intensive retention tracking program can provide. “What gets measured, gets done” is a popular quote often attributed to Scottish physicist William Thomson, also known as Lord Kelvin. By analyzing retention and success through the lens of demographics like academic program, class, residence hall, advisor, co-curricular activity, financial need, and academic ability cells, each aspect of campus can collectively help improve overall student success. 

Retention: First to Second Year 

Given that graduation is the endgame in any analysis of student success, an emphasis on first- to second-year retention and acknowledgment of its correlation is evident. Within the higher education sector, an improvement in first-year retention of 3.3-percentage points over the last decade for full-time students has been noted. While any gain is welcome, the fact that 26% of these students still do not return to their institution for a second year suggests there is considerable room for improvement (National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 2020; National Center for Education Statistics, 2021, May). 

Like many presidents, the relevance of this early indicator of student persistence has warranted substantial attention in my career. During my first presidency, I was proud of the campus effort that led to a 10-percentage point increase in first-year retention. At Elmhurst University, we are also proud of a 7-percentage point increase in first-year retention during the four years immediately prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. While many factors contribute to this success, I would highlight our attention and intentional efforts on “fit,” intensive retention tracking, sense of belonging, and customer service. Our most significant gains in retention came from underrepresented populations where we, like our sector in general, needed to do more to ensure the success of these students. However, those gains are eroding as pandemic-related consequences for our underrepresented, first-generation, and low-income students are mirroring what is being reported around the country (Anderson, 2020). Combining pandemic realities with public perceptions surrounding the costs of higher education, student debt levels, and declining demographics makes student success and retention even more essential. 

It Takes a Campus: Student Success is Everyone’s Responsibility 

Retention and student success should be integrated into each academic and administrative unit’s strategic plan, with specific metrics included in the annual goal setting and review process. Additionally, “student success” information systems for managing and sharing essential information with advisors, faculty, coaches, and other key individuals involved with students should be implemented. These shared databases now go beyond traditional early alert notifications and provide students with resources to enhance their experience. They assist faculty and staff with a more robust view of the student so more informed and timely support is possible. In fact, many of these products can be set up to provide predictive analytics of student risk to allow earlier intervention. 

Dedicated case managers are helpful to support faculty and staff when students have either acute or chronic challenges.  

However, as with most information systems, their effectiveness is dependent on consistent, accurate usage and participation by all stakeholders. Staffing is also required to ensure its appropriate and effective use. For example, dedicated case managers are helpful to support faculty and staff when students have either acute or chronic challenges. These case managers can take a holistic view of the student to help them secure resources and develop strategies to increase the likelihood of a successful outcome. 

The relevance of innovation to student success should also be at the top of this critical conversation. Students come to our colleges and universities seeking growth opportunities that will prepare them not only to be successful in the courses they are taking, but for the lives that await them after graduation. Therefore, all members of the campus must seek creative ways to engage students, challenge them, and support them through productive struggle. At Elmhurst, our Center for Professional Excellence is one source of innovation that graduates often report was beneficial to their experience and future career. 

Be Prepared: Plan Ahead 

As stated earlier, more than one in four first-time students do not return for a second year on the campus where they begin. Reviewing and planning for known retention gaps is prudent. For example, students who are undecided, change majors, or have a significant change of financial circumstances often need extra assistance and superior customer service to navigate these situations. At Elmhurst University, we created an executive retention team to help monitor “customer service.” We have also empowered that group to adjust campus processes to support individual students and help them be more successful. Detailed analysis of those who leave an institution can also identify further retention holes. As a former collegiate athletic director, I observed that some male sports consistently had lower retention than campus averages. In those cases, the emphasis was placed on developing strategies to assess “fit” while also setting goals for improvement compared to prior years. We also asked coaches to monitor both team and institutional retention since graduation was the primary objective. As critical members of the campus community, these coaches were encouraged to integrate their athletes into career and other campus support services during start-up activities. 

Fundraising: For Student Success 

Student success often relies on funding from a variety of sources. The student or student’s family often contribute savings or take out loans, institutions provide financial aid through donor-endowed funds or discounted tuition, government entities give grants or subsidized programs, etc. While Elmhurst University is celebrating significant gains in our endowment and long-term investments over the past five years, we know that much more work lies ahead to secure additional endowed funds and balance the intergenerational equity needs of both current and future students. Recent data indicates financial challenges are at or near the top of the list of why students leave college (Moody, 2019). This underscores the need for institutions to maximize the life-changing power of philanthropy to reduce the actual cost to students through endowment growth. In addition, providing emergency relief grants for students in times of crisis allows donors of all capacities to pool their gifts in a meaningful and impactful way. 

At Elmhurst University, we began using our Giving Day event to secure student emergency funds with some good results. We also seek to endow other programs our donors resonate with that help with student success, with a focus on the neediest and most underserved. For example, our study away program has been a strong part of our honors and other programs for several decades. These international programs typically require students to cover travel expenses, which impacts who can participate. Securing endowed funds to help underserved or financially needy students participate in this program assists with addressing an important equity issue while opening a premium experience to more students on campus. Finally, many foundations are increasingly interested in supporting student success initiatives. Developing a grants infrastructure to seek out, secure, and support these funding opportunities can be motivating to faculty and staff while also enhancing retention and the student experience. 

In Closing 

I believe retention and student success metrics are the best statistics by which to measure a president and leadership team, as they reflect all the functions of an institution from admission to placement and how they work together. Improving student success demands constant attention and innovation—tasks and challenges that college presidents should prioritize for every aspect of the organization.


1. National Student Clearinghouse (2020, August 13). Research Center releases 2020 persistence and retention report. NSC. Research Center Releases 2020 Persistence and Retention Report ( 

2. National Center for Education Statistics. (2021, May). Undergraduate Retention and Graduation Rates COE - Undergraduate Retention and Graduation Rates ( 

3. Anderson, G. (2020, September 16). More pandemic consequences for underrepresented students. Inside Higher Ed. Low-income and students of color in greatest need of pandemic relief ( 

4. Foster, T. D., Froyen, L. C., Skibbe, L. E., Bowles, R. P., & Decker, K., B. (2016). Fathers’ and mothers’ home learning environments and children’s early academic outcomes. Springer Science. 29.1845–1863. doi: 10.1007/s11145-016-9655-7 

5. Schweinhart, L. J., & Weikart, D. P. (1995). The High/Scope Perry Preschool study through age 27. In R.R. Ross, D.H. Antonowicz, & G.K. Dhaliwal (EDS.), Going straight: Effective delinquency prevention and offender rehabilitation, (pp. 57–75). Air Training and Publications. 

6. Carbone, L. (2004). Clued in: How to keep customers coming back again and again. Pearson Education. 

7. Enayati, A. (2012, June 1). The importance of belonging. The importance of belonging - CNN 

8. Moody, J. (2019, March 20). How to avoid dropping out of college. U.S. News & World Report. Dropping Out of College: Why Students Do So and How to Avoid It | Best Colleges | US News