The path to earning a college degree isn’t always an easy one, and for students that make it to campus, there can be even greater challenges to staying the course and realizing their graduation goals. Nationwide, only 5 percent of community college students and 19 percent of those at four-year public universities graduate on time and within budget, according to a Complete College America survey. And where they exist, resources to help students achieve their goals can be fragmented. A growing segment of the student population, non-traditional students can find the graduation process particularly hard, often having to juggle careers and financial and family pressures with their academic ambitions. Portland State University (PSU) has taken an innovative approach to support students’ graduation success.
Since 2012, Portland State had been developing a culture of innovation to improve the student experience. Under the reTHINK PSU banner, campus-wide initiatives have engaged more than a 1,000 faculty and staff to improve student success and academic engagement through more efficient use of technology. “It was also through the insights from the reTHINK initiative that the need for a graduation planning tool emerged,” explains Hans VanDerSchaaf, Director, Projects, Office of Student Success, Academic Affairs for PSU. “When students have difficulty planning on their own, it really creates a lot of tension for them around the speed with which they can complete their degrees — and the kinds of financial pressures that might result from that,” he says.
Lacking an existing solution, PSU understood they needed to adopt a developmental approach with a partner who could be fully invested in the success of the initiative, which led to conversations with Barnes & Noble Education. “There was a real interest in pursuing a ground-up co-creation process,” VanDerSchaaf says. “BNED LoudCloud’s willingness to take this approach, and tackle the financial component, was a real differentiator.”
In collaboration with the PSU team, BNED LoudCloud started working on the product’s development earlier this year. Inspired by PSU’s design thinking approach, the teams built out a discovery process that focused on user needs — not technology. “For the first nine weeks, we didn’t write a single line of code,” recalls Dominic Fried-Booth, Director of Product Development for BNED LoudCloud. “Instead, we understood the need to observe, listen, learn, sketch, test and refine — and that the time we invested in discovery would be key to the project’s outcome and success. Technology is just an enabler.”
Through that discovery process, the development team learned that although PSU’s students are highly focused on their graduation date, developing a plan that ensures all the degree requirements are met is extremely challenging. In fact, just the act of understanding where students are in their current degree path absorbed most of the valuable time advisors spent with them, meaning that issues such as discussing alternative degree paths, career goals and financial planning are often short-changed. For students lacking financial literacy, it only increases the risk they will encounter difficulties that might prevent them from graduating.
To counter those challenges, the teams are now developing a degree-planning tool that will enhance advisor-student interactions and empower students to chart their own roadmap to graduation. Students and advisors will be able to compare different paths by program, credit pace, time to graduation and cost — tailoring each plan to the individual student and his or her lifestyle. Sébastien Trolez, Director of Product Development for BNED LoudCloud explains that the tool is being designed from the user point of view and will be easy to access and navigate. “It will be completely integrated into the suite of PSU tools and mapped alongside the student journey, helping them to plan, track their progress and get to graduation on time and on budget,” he adds. With the team in the early stages of code development, Trolez estimates a fully featured platform will be available for testing within the next few months, with deployment in time for the next academic year.
The plan, however, is not to automate the graduation process, but to provide better direction and enable college advisors to be more effective in supporting students. “It will greatly alleviate the workload,” Fried-Booth predicts. “That means that the conversations students and advisors can have with each other will focus less on the mechanical side of creating a plan and more on the human side — understanding where they want to go and the individual path that will work best for them.”
With colleges and universities spending nearly a billion dollars, annually, trying to provide more effective student support and planning tools, Fried-Booth says the BNED LoudCloud team has been inspired by the work Portland State has undertaken in not only trying to understand the obstacles to graduation, but also the generation of ideas that will help solve those challenges. “The way PSU has discovered the problems is unique; but the problems themselves represent large, yet scalable, issues across the U.S. higher ed market,” he says.
PSU’s VanDerSchaaf is similarly convinced of the impact the graduation planning tool will have. “What initially appealed to us was BNED LoudCloud’s huge capacity with data, and how this can help us provide students with more personalized experiences,” he says. “This partnership feels like a huge win for us.”