A college degree or credential continues to be the pathway to success in Tennessee’s labor market, but with fewer Tennessee students pursuing education after high school, it’s imperative that governing board members at postsecondary institutions recognize the important role they play in student success.

Beyond managing the assets of the organization, hiring, and evaluating the executive leader, and safeguarding the institution’s interest — board members overseeing postsecondary institutions in Tennessee must prioritize the primary source of any college or university’s success: the students. At a time when some students are evaluating college as a diminishing value proposition, the majority still want to pursue a college education and research shows us that it will pay off.  

Each stakeholder at an institution plays a critical role in creating a strategic postsecondary experience that is responsive to the skilled workforce and meets the needs of students enrolled. Students are no longer interested in taking on insurmountable debt in exchange for degrees that may not pay off in the end. This mantra rings particularly true for students from low-income and first-generation backgrounds — students who often don’t have a safety net that allows them to take on debt.  

Importantly, every board member should have insight into the challenges facing the higher education landscape today: 

  • Tennessee funds its colleges and universities based on outcomes, and, generally, state assistance is based on how well the campus is performing in terms of student retention, progression, and graduation. 
  • As the landscape continues to shift, there should be a focus on the main revenue source that drives the institution.  
  • Before the pandemic, higher education was poised to face a lower number of college-going students. Institutions must focus on the secondary pipeline and its alignment with a successful transition into college for high school students.  
  • Students have greater needs today: not being academically prepared, mental health concerns, and transportation challenges. That means higher expenditures for student support services.  
  • Institutions must either collaborate or compete with industry to be the premier provider of workplace credentials and certifications that are in demand and have the potential to yield a high wage.  
  • One-third of colleges and universities are predicted to merge or no longer exist in five to ten years. Colleges must innovate and remain adaptive to ever-evolving workforce needs.  

The beginning of a new year is an ideal time for institutions to reevaluate and realign their actions to ensure students’ success and begin making recommendations for changes in the following academic year. Administrators and faculty should review valuable academic performance data from the fall semester and use that to inform institutional strategy for student success over the rest of the academic year.

As governing boards gear up for the first trustee meetings of the year, it is important for board members to think boldly about better leveraging resources, capital, and the executive leadership team’s focus for the year in progress. As new members join and vested members return to their duties, here are some key issues to consider during the Spring semester’s first board meeting:  

  • Fall-to-Spring student attrition by student group: What is the strategy to reengage students, particularly students with differential rates of attrition? 
  • Ways to engage students who have stopped out 
  • Number of students receiving low grades or withdrawing (i.e., DFW) from courses 
  • Number of students not returning for the Spring semester due to unpaid balances  
  • Number in freshmen cohort who have earned 15 credit hours 
  • Number of students at risk of losing the HOPE scholarship 
  • Number of students on Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP)
  • Number of students who’ve successfully transferred from a community college in Tennessee 
  • Enrollment projections for the Fall semester  

Board members are uniquely positioned to provide the support and resources to ensure that students who enroll continue successfully in good academic standing. As the value proposition of postsecondary education is questioned, student debt increases, and college-going continues to decline, board members are responsible for creating an atmosphere where institutions and industry can work as partners in curricular workforce alignment, and, in turn, help ensure that graduates earn degrees or certificates that position them to be competitive in Tennessee’s labor market. In today’s higher education landscape, it takes a collective effort, including board members’ leadership, to ensure students receive the strategic support necessary to compete in a marketplace where postsecondary training is critical. The guidelines shared here lay the groundwork for understanding student success and how governing board members can have a stake in that success at their institution.    

Dr. Shelby Rogers is SCORE’s senior director of postsecondary innovation.