More than 100 college and university leaders from 50 institutions using Hobsons’ Starfish solutions gathered this spring for a full day of sharing best practices at DePaul University in Illinois and Harrisburg Area Community College in Pennsylvania. Each Student Success Summit provided the opportunity for participants to learn from each other’s successes, reflect on the obstacles they encounter at their institutions, and expand their thinking on how the Starfish platform can be a catalyst for advancing student success initiatives. Below are five “lessons learned” that emerged from these two events.

1. We need to reexamine our assumptions about student retention and change.

Dr. David Kalsbeek, Senior Vice Present for Enrollment Management and Marketing at DePaul University, kicked off the Summit in Chicago by challenging participants to acknowledge that our prevailing mental models about student retention shape how we think about the problem. To truly make a difference, he said, we need to reframe our thinking about the challenges we face. Similarly, Dr. Christine Nowik, Dean of Academic and Student Success at Harrisburg Area Community College, talked about challenging colleagues on her campus to focus on why initiatives like the Starfish platform matter, moving beyond the temptation to focus on how an initiative will work.

2. Communication silos are something we created, but we can un-create them.

Nearly every presentation across both Summits touched on the decentralized nature of the higher education environment. At the same time, we realize that something magical can happen when representatives from academic affairs, academic advising, student affairs, enrollment management, information technology, and institutional research sit in the same room and use their Starfish platform implementation as a springboard for getting on the same page.

Several presentations addressed this theme. The core implementation team at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, for example, presented about how they were able to accelerate their implementation timeline and move toward a proactive, integrated, cross-campus advising model. Similarly, presenters from DePaul University and Cleveland State University talked about how their Starfish platform implementation sought to drastically reduce the experiences of students feeling “shuffled” from one office to another. These presenters were able to craft a compelling narrative through which cross-campus communication and collaboration could be framed.

3. Faculty engagement is possible, really.

Although there can be tension between faculty and administrative cultures at many colleges and universities, institutions using the Starfish platform continue to serve as models for progress in this area. Nazareth College in New York discussed a minor faculty uprising against the use of Starfish “kudos” after deployment at their institution. Instead of letting this derail their efforts, administrators used this negative reaction by some faculty as an opportunity to engage in conversations about the research on student development and the power of positive feedback. Symposia were organized by faculty in which they presented research to one another, engaging in a scholarly dialogue about the purpose of Starfish at their institution. As a result, Nazareth has seen faculty progress survey response rates consistently over 90 percent and their retention rate since their Starfish platform implementation has increased nearly 5 percent. It’s stories like these that show that it is possible for faculty and administrators to work together to have an effect on student success.

4. “Small data” is powerful.

With all of the attention “big data” is getting, “small data” is sometimes overlooked. But at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, students are asked to identify the subject area with which they struggle the most during summer orientation. Students who identify English or Math as their toughest subjects have that data sent to the Starfish platform as an attribute, which drives an entire process of intrusive outreach and advising in their first semester. In the fall 2014 semester, UNL saw a 4 percent increase in retention for this population compared to previous terms. In UNL’s case, using a very specific, small piece of data has helped to target interventions to a defined cohort of students, and has generated significant benefits.

5. The results aren’t good enough (yet).

All of the schools sharing their stories reported positive results in their efforts to increase retention, student degree progress, and student degree completion through their adoption of the Starfish platform. However, despite their success to date, there is a collective understanding that there is more work to be done to ensure that access to higher education can fulfill its promise to students.

Starfish Retention Solutions is now part of Hobsons. To learn more about Hobsons and Starfish, visit


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