New Tool Helps College Administrators Examine the Financial Benefits of Student Success Programs

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If you ever find yourself being asked to defend the cost-effectiveness of a program meant to help struggling youths stay in college, a new calculator might be of use.

No, it’s not the kind of calculator you can buy at an electronics store. This calculator – formally known as the ISS Cost-Return Calculator – is actually a worksheet-based matrix designed to help college program administrators and others determine whether there are actual financial benefits associated with investing in programs that help prevent youths from dropping out of college. (ISS stands for Investing in Student Success).

The calculator basically enables administrators to look at how much more money colleges bring in by investing in students so they can stay in school, keep paying tuition and ultimately graduating instead of falling by the academic wayside and wasting the scarce time and money of colleges and universities in the process.

“By adding the dimension of cost to other measures of program effectiveness, administrators can develop better metrics for examining spending in relation to results, and they can determine whether these investments are paying off through improved rates of retention and graduation,” says Calculating Cost-Return for Investments in Student Success, a new report that Jobs for the Future released about the calculator and its use at 13 institutions of higher education.

            The paper notes the calculator is the result of interest in formulating metrics that demonstrate how student success programs are “ultimately cost effective and help colleges retain students, despite additional up-front costs.”

“This information can help strategic planning and continuous program improvement—for example, by making it possible to determine the mix and amount of staff and resources necessary to make a program as productive as possible without sacrificing quality or access,” the paper states.

The paper found that using the calculator yielded some impressive results at 13 colleges and universities selected in late 2007 by Jobs for the Future and the Delta Project on Postsecondary Costs, Productivity and Accountability, to participate in a one-year pilot program called Investing in Student Success. Each institution had student success programs generally considered to be effective at serving freshman students, particularly low-income students, first-generation college-goers and at-risk students.

According to Jobs for the Future, at the colleges and universities that used the ISS Cost-Return Calculator:

• Seven of the 13 programs showed an increase in retention that could be associated with participation in the student success programs.

• The ISS Cost-Return Calculator was found to be a “useful tool for institution-level decision-making, and specifically for understanding the costs of success for particular students served by certain interventions.”

• Most of the 13institutions experienced a “change in conversation” around first-year programs, student outcomes, and cost-effectiveness because of the process of using the calculator.

The Jobs for the Future paper on the ISS Cost-Return Calculator concluded that the calculator helped fill a critical information void regarding the cost-effectiveness of the student success programs and could help decision-makers in planning for how much staff and resources should be devoted to such programs.

“In addition, because student success programs cross traditional organizational lines between instruction, student services and academic support, many institutions lack a good way to analyze their cost structures,” the paper states. “One of the main goals of calculating cost-return on investment was to better organize data by the basic cost elements of student success programs to make this information useful.”