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Professional Opinion

Placing the college student at the center

Technology has spurred a level of integration and customization unimaginable 20 years ago
University Business, December 2016
Scott A. Bass is the provost at American University in Washington, D.C.
Scott A. Bass is the provost at American University in Washington, D.C.

How many databases does your campus administer in the broad area of student support? American University uses more than 36 databases for different student-related administrative and learning management functions.

Each data system was designed to serve the professional needs of discrete administrative units and is maintained and updated as needed. For the most part, these systems meet their intended purposes.

Yet, there is little to no integration among these discrete data elements.

While serving the administrative functions of units well, how do these disparate systems assist in understanding the overall student experience? Do these systems facilitate effective support for a student who has complex issues and who experiences multiple touch-points throughout a given academic year?

Is a system of disconnected records best suited for advising today’s residential student and the enormous diversity of backgrounds brought to campus?

Professionals advise students using the information that is available to them. This scenario has risks, however.

For example, an academic advisor who recommends that a student drop a course or switch a major without the information needed to assess the situation could create unforeseen problems for the student.

The recommendation does not take into account the impact on the student’s financial aid, emotional well-being, ability to participate in athletics or financial sponsor’s reaction to changing the major.

Integration and customization

In the current information structure, the range of campus interactions that students experience simply defies one’s ability to easily have a 360-degree view of an individual’s situation. Helping a student, especially one who is at risk, may necessitate the will and ability of professionals to share information across units in a timely manner.

Unfortunately, when such information exchange does occur, the intervention often transpires too late, when the student is frustrated, has missed deadlines or is at the point of dropping out or dismissal. A comprehensive view of a student influences the effective and timely guidance we seek to provide.

In short, we have done a good job creating single-purpose data sets that lack serious coordination and integration. Now we have entered an era where technology has spurred a level of integration and customization that would have been unimaginable 20 years ago.

Hand-held digital marvels have enabled easy access to goods and services. Traditional-age students have grown up in a world where technology is ubiquitous and information is available at a moment’s notice—and from a single device.

Bureaucratic systems and services in multiple sectors have adjusted or faltered in this new world of responsive information. The health care system, which is arguably as or even more complex than higher education, has begun to adjust to this new world. Higher education, however, lags far behind.

Breaking down silos

For higher education to effectively meet the needs of the current generation, successfully address the challenges inherent in its complex structure and maximize student success, it’s incumbent to break down data silos and fragmented services in an effort to provide a more holistic educational experience.

Indeed, we need to reinvent the experience so that the student, rather than the administrative function, is at the center of the academic, information and service core. With the student placed at the center, the support and accessible information shifts accordingly, making it possible to provide that holistic educational experience.

Systems that focus on management of the overall learning relationship offer potential technologies to realize this ambitious goal. In addition to this technology, our organizational culture, process and structure must adopt this shift in mindset. Now is the time to undertake this major student-centered transformation.

Scott A. Bass is the provost at American University in Washington, D.C.

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