Isabel Thottam

by Isabel Thottam

The path to student success looks different for everyone. In higher education, faculty and admin play a major role in guiding students to obtaining their degrees.

In this article, we’ll look at:

  • How institutions are currently failing students
  • What we can do right now to increase student success

Throughout this piece we will include advice and tools for:

  • Helping students prepare a financial or personal budget
  • Giving advice to help multi-tasking students stay organized
  • Ideas for helping students plan finances

Though we’ve seen an overall upward progress for students completing college and obtaining a degree, statistics from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center show that an average of 58 percent of students who began college in the fall of 2012 earned a degree six years later. Despite this being an overall improvement, it is still a disappointing and slow-changing completion rate.

College completion rates

Graph provided by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

If we define student success by strong retention and degree completion rates, we need to see a much higher statistic. Moreover, when we define what student success means, we must also consider the other half of the equation: high-quality learning. How students are prepared for their success is also at stake in higher education. It’s not merely that the retention and completion rates are low, but also that today’s students are not receiving enough preparation and support.

We must ask ourselves: why are students failing, transferring, or giving up on their degrees, and what can higher education leaders do to see a stronger student success rate?

It’s important to address the ways in which institutions are failing students if we want to see student success improve. We cannot continue to ignore the issues or place the responsibility solely on the students. We can do better, and if we agree that it is part of the role of institutions to see students be successful, we have to get to work.

If statistics are showing that the completion rates are low, we have to look at what is wrong in the system, and take actionable steps to make improvements and pave a new path for student success.

How Institutions Are Currently Failing Students

New demographics

One of the challenges that institutions currently face is that the demographic of students is much more diverse than the traditional profile of incoming students in prior years. In the past, the majority of college students came directly from high school, lived on campus, and attended school full-time. But now, as the below figure from Deloitte University Press shows, the profile makeup of today’s students is much more complex. This means that old, traditional methods of student success do not simply apply or translate to all students, and likely contribute to how students are being set up for failure. If students do not fit a particular profile colleges are used to working with, the guidelines and pathways we are offering do not necessarily apply to their situations. This lack of understanding of the differing backgrounds and situations could make students feel isolated or unsure of how to find the guidance they need if institutions do not make the effort to change their idea of the typical college student profile.

student demographics

Lack of financial aid

The most topical issue is funding education—and lack of financial resources is a major reason why so many students drop out of college. We see how institutions fail students with financial aid when instructions are unclear about deadlines and the overall application process is too messy or confusing. Some students may not understand how to fill out a Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form or recognize that it is free to do so. Despite some colleges assigning financial aid supervisors to students upon acceptance, this is not always the case, and can be a confusing process for students to navigate.

This also applies to the reality that students come from such diverse backgrounds, and where some might have a parent filling out these forms and worrying about tuition, other students might be on their own and find filling out applications or making payments on time difficult to navigate alone.

Lack of preventive care or life skills development

We fail students when we neglect to set them up for the lifestyle changes that come along with the academic experience. Many students who enroll in college will be moving away from their home, or could even be the first in their family to attend college. The higher education experience can be scary, and many students express not feeling prepared by their middle and high school experiences due to the lack of general life skills training or developmental courses. Students often do not learn how to create a financial or personal budget, open a bank account, prepare their taxes, or apply for scholarships or financial aid until they realize they need to—and how prepared are advisors and faculty to handle these types of questions?

Moreover, the lack of preventive mental health care available to students can lead to students falling behind if they are mentally unstable or unable to attend classes, complete assignments, or keep up with rigorous course work. Institutions can do more to help students stay healthy and intervene when it becomes aware that a student may be suffering from anxiety or depression.

What We Can Do Right Now To Increase Student Success

There is no quick or easy route for immediately paving a new path to student success. But, since we’ve identified two of the biggest problem areas—financing and organization—we can focus on helping students with these issues right now. By better preparing faculty and staff with the tools to assist students, we can guide students to success by helping them with their budgeting and organizational skills, as well as better addressing their mental health needs.

College can be more difficult and stressful than expected, so when students start to fall behind, when does the institution intervene and seek out ways to help such students avoid dropping out? Tutoring, mentorship, career coaching and therapy would all be great programs to offer students who are falling behind. Additionally, academic planning with individual students to help decide on the right courses and plans of action can help students stay on track. Advisors should also have mandatory and timely meetings to help students identify what kind of job or career they can obtain post-graduation.

Students are going to be more likely to stay on track if they are given a structured pathway to success, and if advisors are able to help them in some of the bigger problem areas. Let’s look at some specific tools and advice you can use to help increase student success.

Intervention planning for college student success

Courtesy of Deloitte Insights

Helping Students Prepare a Financial or Personal Budget

Most students in college are in a transition period where they start to become financially independent from their parents. Students may seek advice from their academic advisors and leaders to learn how to manage their finances.

If provided training and given the necessary tools to prepare for this type of conversation, advisors and faculty can help students better manage their money to avoid financial stress, which could be impacting their academic performance.

Consider sharing the following steps for creating a financial or personal budget, as this information could help students take charge of their financial situations. This also helps them build good financial habits for the future.

Calculate and track spending

    • It is a mistake to ignore spending and only set aside enough money to make payments and bills on time.
    • To begin a budget, the first step is to list all monthly income—salary, freelance work, scholarships, financial aid, etc.—to ensure the student knows exactly how much they have available to them on a monthly basis.
    • Next, students should add up their expenses: bills, tuition payments, loan payments, and an estimated grocery/food cost.
    • Now, subtract the expenses from the monthly income amount. This will result in a number that is either negative or positive, or they will break even. If it is not a positive number, you will need to work with the student to discuss how they can decrease their monthly expenses. If it is a positive number, you should discuss setting up a savings account.
    • Students can use an app or a spreadsheet to keep track of spending, and should be advised to label spending items with tags, such as “dining out,” “lunch meals, “school supplies,” etc. (I recommend apps such as Mint, Excel, or Turbo Tax).
    • Compulsive and impulse spending also need to be tracked. If students are going to attend social events, travel, or shop, they should keep an ongoing record of their spending and set a limit they cannot exceed each month.

Cut down on monthly expenses

    • The biggest monthly expense is usually rent, and depending on whether the student lives on or off campus, this can fluctuate. Based on a student’s income level and financial aid, advisors should be prepared to give advice on whether it is more cost-effective for a student to live on campus or seek off-campus housing. If you are going to suggest off-campus housing, you should then also be prepared to make suggestions on neighborhoods in which they can afford, and resources for locating housing.
    • In this day and age, there are many monthly service subscriptions available. Whether it’s Netflix, Spotify, Apple, Hulu, Amazon, or HBO, these monthly subscriptions add up. Suggest that students consider cutting back on such services to help with their budget.

Discuss saving plans

    • It can be difficult for students to see the benefit of a savings plan if they are already struggling to make ends meet. But, advising them to set aside a percentage of their paycheck or to allow for some cushion in their budget, no matter how small, will help set them up for a successful financial future—and means they will spend less time stressing about whether they have enough to pay rent. Suggest that the student always have at least the amount of one to three months’ expenses in a savings account, if possible, in the event of an emergency or unplanned obstacle.

Advising Students About Their Physical and Mental Health Care

Juggling school, work, and a social life is difficult for anyone—especially under the added pressure an academic environment creates. In fact, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 40 million U.S. adults suffer from an anxiety disorder and 75% of people experience their first episode of anxiety by the age of 22.

Students are struggling to care for themselves mentally and physically when they have so much course work to tackle—and the aid from an advisor could be exactly the guidance they need. But navigating the college world as a young adult is tough and confusing for a multitude of reasons.

In particular, many students are on their own for the first time and may not know how to properly feed themselves or care for their bodies when they fall ill. This can be especially difficult for students who relied on a parent to take them to the doctor, without ever considering the costs associated with health care.

Many students in college are likely still on their parent’s health insurance plan, but that does not apply to every student. This is something students likely do not consider for a budget or even think about—and getting sick is bound to happen at some point during their time in school. Depending on the institution, certain programs are available for students who might need to see a doctor for health concerns, for treating mental health related issues, or for learning healthy eating and nutrition habits.

Most institutions have a gym, nutrition program, personal trainers, therapists, and other health-related facilities available to students. However, all students might not know that these benefits are available for them to take advantage of without cost. Don’t just assume students know all of these benefits exist—it’s better to mention it, than to assume they already know.

If you spend time explaining to students what health benefits are available to them through the institution, knowing this information will help them improve their lifestyles. For example, a student might be suffering from anxiety and could use the help of a school therapist, or if they are struggling with their weight, they could benefit from working with a school nutritionist. These are examples of ideas can help students struggling with their work-life balance to set them up for a healthy and successful year.

Assisting Multi-tasking Students With Organization

It’s great to be able to get multiple assignments done at once, but there’s a balance that needs to be achieved when trying to maintain a schedule. Students probably need help organizing their schedules and projects—and even if they don’t say so, they will likely accept your help if offered.

If a student seems to be struggling with multi-tasking, here’s some tips you can share to help them stay organized:

  • Organize your desk or computer.
  • Group tasks and work on related assignments.
  • Write everything down and create a “to-do” list—even if you don’t use it. The simple act of writing something down reinforces it.
  • Keep your workspace and home space clean and organized.
  • Set up a digital filing system on your computer or hard drive for important documents.
  • Take a 15 or 30-minute break when working on assignments—a break in which you get up and move around!
  • Focus on one task at a time—do not switch to a new assignment until you are ready to be finished with the first one, even temporarily.
  • Set deadlines for yourself and stick to them!

It’s imperative that students maintain an organized workspace, both in their home or dorm, and on their computer. A messy space and disorganized digital files leads to stress, especially when important documents are nowhere to be found.

College does not need to be such a difficult and stressful experience. Most students who enroll in school are there for a specific goal and reason, and it’s the duty of higher education leaders and faculty to help students achieve success. But we are failing because we are not learning from the students who are not graduating. Instead, if we take the information we have gathered from statistics and college dropouts, we can work toward a more efficient system that fully invests in student success. The more streamlined institutions are at helping students, the more streamlined their paths to success will be.

About the author:

Isabel Thottam is a freelance writer based in Seattle, WA. A graduate from Emerson College, Isabel has self-published two books, “The Labradoodle Who Lost His Doodle,” and “Joy Comes In The Morning.” She writes on the topics of career, technology, sustainable food, mental health and has been published in Fast Company, Glassdoor,, Fortune, Edible Seattle, Paste Magazine, and more. In addition to writing, Isabel works for a small, family orchard in Washington State selling fruit!


Fishman Dovery, Tiffany, Ludgate, Allan, and Tutak, Jen. “Success by design: Improving outcomes in American higher education.” Deloitte, 16 March 2017,

NSC Research Center. “Completing College – National – 2018.” National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 18 December 2018.

Anxiety and Depression Association of America. “Teens and College Students.” ADAA,

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