March 5th, 2018

Why Colleges Shouldn’t Focus on Failure


boosting retention and completion

When it comes to boosting retention and completion, many colleges engage in predictive analysis to determine which students are “at risk” of failure—then focus most support resources on trying to turn these students’ fortunes around.

There’s certainly merit in assessing which students need intensive support. However, improving retention and completion rates in a meaningful way requires a broader focus. Beyond predicting who might be at risk of failing, the key is assessing which students are more (or less) likely to engage with that support.

By assessing where students’ risk of failure meets up with their likelihood of engaging, you can offer personalized support that keeps them engaged and empowers them to access needed help—if and when they require it.

Engagement-driven support optimizes outcomes

Impact analysis is essential to optimizing resource allocation for support efforts. Unfortunately, it’s often overlooked or viewed as too complex, resulting in significant misallocation and underutilization of valuable services.

Despite enormous amounts of money spent predicting risk, students remain stubbornly unique, and the benefits of intensive support aren’t isolated to one end of the risk distribution. For example, while many first-year students whose grade point averages fall between 2.0 and 3.0 will go on to graduate, many will also drop out. Because they can look virtually identical on paper, it’s difficult to gauge who among them can be influenced most through additional support.

Impact analysis helps ensure appropriate interventions are taken to support those in the “murky middle” of the curve. By creating customized learning interventions and positive experiences for students in every category, you can improve retention rates and completion rates.

Take support allocation a step further—and avoid the pitfalls of overly focusing on risk—by incorporating these strategies.

Eliminate stigma by providing proactive support to all students.

Positioning support as something provided to all students normalizes engagement.

At Notre Dame de Namur University in California, every student receives success coaching, starting with a call before school begins and continuing all year to help manage workloads and stress and build leadership skills.

Students are more likely to leverage services when they hear, “We believe in you and want to do everything we can to help you succeed” instead of “We’re concerned you might fail, so we want to let you know these services are here.”

Use a support onboarding process to begin assessing impactability.

A simple way to assess students’ needs and openness to engaging is to send an email and a text directing them to a short questionnaire they can easily complete.

The questionnaire should ask about their goals, concerns, and preferences; give basic information on support resources; and offer the option to instantly connect with a support professional. Whether students fill it out indicates their existing mindset, showing their potential willingness to engage with support staff and their openness to receiving support. Just knowing which message students respond to using which device reveals something about their preferred modalities of communication.

Institutions such as Arizona State University Online use this approach, and leading student support professionals find it highly effective in getting students connected to support early.3

Use risk/impactability categorization to make resource allocation decisions.

Another way to ensure support resources are allocated efficiently is to group students based on their need for and likelihood to engage with intensive support, then allocate support personnel time accordingly.

Here’s an example of a simple four-category approach:

  • Low-risk/low-impactability students: Those currently with a low need for intensive support and a low probability of engaging with it can be engaged with automated and self-service forms of support.
  • Low-risk/high-impactability students: Those currently with a low need for intensive support but a high probability of engaging with it benefit from transactional one-to-one interactions, such as quick text-message exchanges.
  • High-risk/low-impactability students: Those currently with a high need for intensive support but a low probability of engaging with it need you to earn their trust to feel comfortable seeking help. Look for quick wins with transactional one-to-one interactions that reinforce the value and normalize the process of asking for support.
  • High-risk/high-impactability students: The majority of your support team’s time should be focused on interacting with these high-risk students who are likely to engage.

“Impactability” refers to how likely a student is to engage with and benefit from intensive support. It’s important to regularly revisit this categorization because students’ situations are constantly changing.

Tailor support to students’ needs and preferences through a configurable support hierarchy.

Begin by creating a student support hierarchy based on resource intensiveness. At the bottom of the hierarchy are interventions such as automated nudges and self-service content; at the top are episodic and developmental one-on-one coaching.

Next, look for ways to configure support within that hierarchy. Some students thrive within a “flipped” model in which they access curated content on their own before connecting with support staff to get answers. Others will appreciate being guided through a process of self-discovery, planning, and execution.

Some students will want to talk on the phone or have video meetings, while others may prefer text messaging. Some may be easiest to reach in the morning, while others may be night owls. By offering a variety of options and tracking how each student chooses to engage, you can quickly and cost-effectively “personalize” support for the masses.

Excelsior College adopted this approach for its Student Success Center, where academic coaches support students through academic and personal struggles and point them in the direction of specific services.

Institutions that use their analytics muscles to look beyond risk and assess the likelihood of positive impact from student support services will make better resource allocation decisions. When you provide an environment in which students don’t just succeed, but also thrive, retention efforts are much more effective.

When students feel sufficiently supported and are shown that they do have what it takes to succeed, the idea of completing their degree program becomes less daunting and more empowering.

Brian Co is vice president of product and platform development at InsideTrack. Prior to this role, he was the founder and CEO of the education technology company Logrado, winner of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s College Knowledge Challenge, which was acquired by InsideTrack in April, 2014. Brian has held senior technology and product management roles at consumer and enterprise technology companies and has more than 12 years of experience working in collaboration with colleges to increase the success and completion of low-income and first-generation students.


Tyson, Charlie. “To Maximize Graduation Rates, Colleges Should Focus on Middle-range Students, Research Shows.” Inside Higher Ed, September 10, 2014. Accessed September 20, 2016.

“What Is InsideTrack Coaching?” InsideTrack Coaching for Students at NDNU, accessed September 20, 2016.

“Support.” ASU Online Degree Programs, accessed September 20, 2016.

By Connects Contributor on January 11, 2016. “Student Success Center Open for Business.” Faculty Connects, January 11, 2016. Accessed September 20, 2016.

Reprinted from “At-Risk vs. Impact Paradigm” in Recruitment & Retention 30.12(2016)4,8 © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.