The NCSL Blog


By Andrew Smalley 

Nashville—With increasing numbers of nontraditional and adult learners seeking postsecondary credentials and degrees, institutions are continuing to develop new approaches and strategies to promote student success.

Idaho Representative Wendy Horman (R), Scott Pulsipher, President, Western Governors University; Joe May, Chancellor, Dallas County Community College District;. David Andrews, President, National UniversityAt NCSL's 2019 Legislative Summit, a panel of college presidents spoke about their focus on student outcomes and workforce development. The discussion was moderated by Representative Wendy Horman (R-Idaho).

As the demographics of higher education shift to older, more diverse and more financially independent students, institutions are working to develop new student supports and programs to ensure credential completion and degree attainment. Schools such as Western Governors University and National University offer online and on-campus programs in fields ranging from information technology to health care.

“We have fundamentally rethought the faculty model,” said Scott Pulsipher, president of Western Governors University. “The entire student journey is enabled by technology.”

Online programs and competency-based learning can offer students, especially those who work full time while in school, increased flexibility as they pursue a degree or credential. Many of these institutions are also focusing on reducing the costs of higher education.

“We look at how much funding is going to students who are completing on time,” Pulsipher said. “Focusing on the cost is really where you solve the affordability equation.”

David Andrews, president of National University, agrees.

“We have to look at every level of expense in order to bring cost down," he said.

Other institutions are also developing programs to help students persist and complete degree or credential programs.

“We created a set of success coaches who are institutionally independent but provide one-on-one assistance,” said Joe May, chancellor at the Dallas County Community College District. “We have food pantries and have people trained in SNAP assistance at all our campuses.”

Many students who attend these open-access institutions have had previous unsuccessful attempts in higher education.

“A lot of our students have been to college before, they need to get out of college,” Andrews said. “We share that commitment across the institutions.”

Even as schools work to put student success first, many institutional challenges remain.

“One thing that I believe very strongly is that institutional autonomy is the enemy,” May said. “If you are not collaborating, you are not supporting the learner. You need to work together.”

One area of improvement specifically identified for policymakers was data sharing between institutions.  

“From a policy side, we must encourage more sharing of data so we can look at the learner all the way through their journey,” May added. “Students bring a learning record with them and we need to see that.”

Pulsipher said his institution believes interventions between faculty and students can be better informed by data.

“Our model is like having 24/7 office hours,” he said.

As legislators and higher education institutions search for solutions to student success, the ideas and models being developed and implemented at online and hybrid institutions may spread to other, more traditional providers.

“Higher education is starting to pick up some momentum and change,” Andrews said. “The catalyst for those changes might be universities you have never heard of, but the traditional universities will catch on.”  

Andrew Smalley is a research analyst in NCSL’s Education Program.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.