Connection, Engagement, Support: Building the Scaffolding of Social Mobility

InsideTrack’s third annual Student Success Symposium began with a lot of furrowed brows. The higher education leaders who came together to discuss social mobility and organizational change were given what seemed to be an impossible task: suspend a set of nails above a wooden platform, with only the tip of one nail touching the wood.

After fifteen minutes of confusion, Fernando Sanchez-Arias, the Symposium’s keynote speaker, showed everyone how it’s done. It takes a structure of interlaced nails on top to ensure the single one rising up from the base doesn’t topple over. And if just one piece falls out of place, you’ve got a big mess on your hands (and the potential for injury, too).

That intricate structure of support represents the many different people and programs necessary to support one individual’s rise through higher education and career advancement.

Sanchez-Arias, Director of The Home Depot’s Learning Organization, cited another home improvement tool to describe the stages of social mobility: a ladder. Social mobility isn’t just about climbing the ladder, he explained. It’s also about holding the ladder, to ease the ascent of those coming up.

Repairing the rungs of the ladder

Over the course of the two-day event, speakers and attendees discussed what higher education can do to “hold the ladder” for students striving to achieve their dreams. During a panel titled “Higher Ed’s Role in Social Mobility,” Dave Jarrat of InsideTrack cited recent research from the Strada Education Network noting that who students connected with at their institution — and how meaningful those connections were — was more important in determining student success than the type or rank of institution they attended.

Building those kinds of connections can reduce the risk of students dropping out. But too often, as Gates Bryant of Tyton Partners pointed out during a panel focused on trends in higher education strategy, institutions don’t identify the students at risk until it’s too late.

Switching from “formative” to “summative” measures of success could help institutions connect students with needed support earlier, he said. Summative measures can tell you the end outcomes, but formative measures can tell you what’s happening along the way — whether students are engaging with faculty and student support staff, and whether they’re taking advantage of institutional resources.

As attendees noted, the key to reducing attrition is embedding student support outreach and resources into the student experience early on, so meaningful interactions become as central to the student experience as late-night study sessions.

Don’t keep resources hidden

Students joining the Symposium for an afternoon panel spoke to attendees about their higher education journeys. Several noted the need for institutions to be more proactive with their outreach.

One student said she knew there was information out there that could help her understand her student loans, but she couldn’t find it (and as a result, didn’t even know how much money she owed). Another cited friends she knew who had tried to transfer to another institution, but because she didn’t have the correct information about required courses, meeting her goals was going to take more time and money than she had planned.

The consensus from students was that institutions could support their success by keeping the door open. Support needs to respond to real-life situations, and students should be able to access the resources they need.

Keeping the door to education open

Rovy Branon of University of Washington Continuum College talked about keeping another kind of door open. In his presentation, titled “Learning for a Lifetime,” he discussed a “60-year curriculum,” which creates an environment of ongoing education where learners can cycle through coursework on a continuing basis to acquire new skills and degrees.

As students prepare for a world where people will be working longer, at jobs that have yet to be created, they will need to become lifelong learners. But first, institutions need to create the curriculum that supports them in returning to the classroom — digital or physical —  time and time again.

It’s a lot like Netflix, Branon said. The streaming service no longer shows credits at the end of a program, instead launching viewers right into the next episode. Institutions too need to keep learners engaged to make it easier for them to launch into the next stage of education.


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