Applying a Return-on-Investment Lens to Student Success Initiatives

Higher education institutions are exploring new ways to decrease costs, invest in student success, and deliver high-quality education to an increasingly diverse student body. Those goals should, in turn, lead to increased student completions, reduced time to completion, and reduced student debt.

Investments in student success to support these goals can include

  • enhancing and streamlining course advising, course selection, and/or course registration;
  • tracking student progress;
  • targeting support services to improve student academic decision making; and
  • providing support for institutional strategies aimed at helping students stay on track toward degree attainment.

But how can an institution select from a buffet of student success initiatives (SSIs) that all look equally enticing? How can it figure out how much each of those investments might cost? How should it define and communicate success? All of these questions point to the need for institutions to apply a return on investment (ROI) lens when considering SSIs.

How Can Institutions Apply an ROI Lens?

Adopting and implementing SSIs typically requires new spending. But how might the financial lens through which new initiatives are viewed shift from "What does it cost?" to a more useful understanding of "What do we get for the resources we spend?" This refocusing from spending to ROI is critical to understanding and creating sustainable innovation.

Transitioning to an ROI lens requires three fundamental shifts. First, acknowledge that this is not only about dollars spent but also about people and how they spend their time. Our research shows that the most significant investment that higher education institutions make is in their people—their faculty and staff. Yet, there often is a very poor understanding of how those people spend their time. ROI demands a better understanding of how faculty and staff spend their time and how that effort translates into student success.

Second, the focus on total cost alone must move to one of cost per unit and how unit costs change over time. The best example of such a shift is to consider cost per credential (degrees and certificates). Using this approach, an institution may elect to actually increase total spending on initiatives while ultimately reducing the more important unit cost per credential.

The third component for applying an ROI lens is to tangibly connect student success and financial sustainability. As various student success measures—including retention, progression, average student credit hour load, and increase in credit completion—improve, so too may the net revenue the institution earns. This increase in net revenue may be further enhanced by adopting student learning and advising systems that increase efficiency. The financial ROI applies to students as well, translating their success into reduced tuition, quicker completion, and faster entry into the workforce.

These three components—a holistic understanding of resources, a focus on unit cost, and a connection between student success and financial sustainability—form the core of an ROI lens.

What Is in the SSI Toolkit?

The SSI Toolkit, created by rpk GROUP in partnership with EDUCAUSE, is built around a new user-friendly Excel-based model. This model helps institutions capture projected revenues to support the SSI, personnel, and other expenses, and new metrics and data visualizations to understand and share the SSI's ROI impact.

In addition to the model, the toolkit takes the user through an exposure to the ROI lens and offers case studies showing how to apply the lens and a roadmap for how to get started. Finally, the toolkit includes opportunities for connections around using an ROI lens with SSIs.

How Can I Use the Toolkit at My Institution?

The EDUCAUSE SSI Toolkit reflects an institution's ongoing commitment to empower stakeholders and help them move from data to informed action. The toolkit provides actionable best practice around SSIs and ROI in one complete package and can help institutions with many critical tasks.

Making SSI Choices

The all-in cost of an initiative is often unknown, which prevents institutions from understanding the total investment they are making. In addition, if success is not defined, institutional leaders cannot rationally choose between various SSI options. By capturing total investment and the expected outcomes for different SSIs, the tool supports institutions in choosing between options based on ROI.

Capturing Reallocation Opportunities

Research indicates that institutional investment in SSIs is largely through the use of existing personnel (55 percent, on average). By helping institutions understand the use of current personnel, the tool can support them in making informed reallocation decisions, moving people (and their time) toward initiatives that better achieve each institution's student success priorities.

Breaking Down Silos

Populating and using the ROI tool creates a valuable intersection point between the work of the chief academic officer, the chief financial officer, and the student affairs/success lead. These efforts help break down silos within institutions, bringing together the resources, metrics, and leadership needed for students to succeed.

Creating Sustainability

Although many institutions are interested in innovation, few have taken the holistic view required to achieve sustainable innovation. Launching an SSI can be viewed as a success, but is not in and of itself how we would define success. The toolkit creates clarity around how the project is being supported—both in terms of launching it and maintaining it over time. It also demonstrates the connections between student success and net revenue.

Telling the ROI Story

The toolkit supports a shift in the conversation from spending alone (What does the SSI cost?) to ROI (What good things might happen as a result of our initiative?) Second, institutions are encouraged to set targets around what will happen. Ultimately, the goal is to move from the numbers to the story. The right metrics help us do this. To support institutional change management and culture change, the toolkit focuses on defining what success will look like, and then indicates how to measure that success.

Identifying Exit Strategies

Institutional culture is generally better at launching new initiatives than shutting down existing ones. By clearly identifying and measuring success over the long term and including metrics around both student success and financial impact, the tool helps institutions determine when initiatives are not working. At that point, the institution can make a data-informed decision about whether to continue, modify, or exit from individual initiatives.