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Each college and university has unique strengths and unique challenges, but one shared challenge is grappling with how to address gaps in student achievement.

According to a 2018 study from the National Center for Education Statistics, first-generation college students are more than twice as likely to stop out (drop out, and then re-enroll) within three years than students whose parents have a bachelor’s degree. Another study from the EAB found that Black and Hispanic community college students are more likely to enroll as part time students, with only 8 percent of part-time students completing their community college degree in 4 years.

Many students face multiple barriers to student success. For example, a study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that Black students who have children take out more student loans and incur 34% more student loan debt than any other demographic group.

From disparities in grades and course selection to dropout and college-completion rates, this inequity highlights the different realities and experiences faced by students from underserved or disadvantaged backgrounds. These disparities have lifelong consequences, not only to the individual student, but also for their families. Earning a college degree or certificate with labor market value has been the only reliable method for overcoming multigenerational poverty. It’s essential that colleges and universities take the next steps to reduce–and strive to eliminate–student success gaps. Here are five ways your institution can help close the achievement gap.

Develop awareness of student barriers to success

While many first-generation college students have optimistic aspirations, many are unprepared for the barriers they’ll face once they’re balancing college with other obligations. According to the EAB, finances (living expenses, childcare, transportation) and demands on students’ time (multiple part-time jobs, family obligations) are often major obstacles that threaten to impede student success.

Awareness of these barriers is a crucial first step for addressing them. Colleges can help students address barriers by establishing a student success plan, then supporting students through advising and success coaching as they implement the plan.

Help students develop a Student Success Plan

Students deserve to know what they can expect from a college education. They also need to be aware of the consequences of their choices. For example, this plan of action will help them see that if they choose to reduce the number of courses they take in a given term, the time it will take to achieve their goal of earning a college degree or certificate will be extended. 

When students understand that a college education is an investment in their future rather than just a current expense, they can prioritize and make decisions to help them move forward along the pathway toward graduation.

Guided pathways serve as a strong foundation for student success planning. The Teacher’s College at Columbia University identified several key features of guided pathways in a 2014 study, including: 

  • Degree maps: Help students understand the learning outcomes and future necessary steps to advance their careers.
  • Exploratory majors: Help students clarify their educational goals through a sampling of a variety of courses.
  • Predictable schedules: Help students stay on track and complete their program on time, and balance work and family obligations with coursework.
  • Integrated instruction in foundation skills: Support students in completing foundational or prerequisite courses.
  • Progress tracking and support: Provide students feedback and support to promote achievement of academic milestones.

By implementing these features and more, your institution can help students set achievable goals to mitigate obstacles and barriers they may face. 

Provide support through advising

Supporting students through advising and student success coaching along their entire pathway to graduation is critical to help them remain on-track. A 2018 report from the Center for Community College Student Engagement found that students who met with an advisor were more likely to be engaged, and research suggested that early advising may contribute to increased retention. Reinforced by advisors, guided pathways are valuable for helping students navigate their higher education experience, helping them move effectively and efficiently through the process of earning a degree.

Hire leaders who are willing to be held accountable

Does your college or university have leaders who are willing to be held accountable for taking action toward reducing student success gaps? According to Tom Sugar, vice president of partnerships at EAB, colleges need deeply committed leaders who will implement policies and technology to sustain changes. 


“At the end of the day, what matters most is having the will to do the work. Leaders must be willing to hold themselves and their institutions accountable to closing equity gaps,” Sugar said. By tracking metrics such as academic performance, retention rates, credit momentum, graduation rates, and time to completion, your university or college can track progress towards reducing the student achievement gap. 

Commit to continuous improvement

While there are many factors that go into closing the student achievement gap, it’s important for leaders to recognize that the most important step is the first one: deciding to take action. If these tasks seem daunting, don’t worry – we can help. EduStrategy can help you design a college-wide strategy for removing barriers and supporting student success, then measure changes in student success. We can also help you identify potential grants for funding your strategy.  Book a Discovery Call with Laura today, and find out how we can help your college or university close the student achievement gap. 

Get ready to win major grants and put your strategic priorities into action.

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