Council Insights: Council of Board Professionals, February 2022

Board Governance and the Role of Board Professionals in Advancing Equitable Student Success

By Cristin Toutsi Grigos March 17, 2022 March 18th, 2022 Blog Post

Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.

During February’s Council of Board Professionals meeting, board professionals (BPs) from institutions, systems, and foundations discussed key issues related to board governance and advancing equitable student success, including how BPs should support the work of boards and institutional leaders as they:

  • define student success on each campus;
  • measure progress toward goals;
  • support all students—striving for equitable student success;
  • determine who is responsible for overseeing student success goals, and who is responsible for managing them; and
  • provide appropriate resources for student success priorities and new initiatives.

Meeting Highlights

Several BPs explained how they have worked with their presidents and board members to sharpen and clarify leadership-level definitions, goals, and priorities related to student success. As AGB states in its Board of Directors’ Statement on Board Responsibility for the Oversight of College Completion, boards must declare student success among their priorities, regularly reviewing disaggregated data on key metrics about student enrollment, retention, and completion, and using these data for related decision-making.

  • Council members agreed that disaggregated data should include race/ethnicity, gender, family income, and other metrics that reflect the diversity of students and their increasingly complex pathways to and through higher education. If institutions and systems don’t look at disaggregated data about who did and didn’t graduate, or who was and wasn’t successful, then they are missing opportunities to identify equity gaps that merit interventions and investments.

According to one BP, her board took the view of student success as equivalent to academic excellence by:

  • ensuring that student success is a part of most performance evaluations (not only the president’s);
  • sharing disaggregated data with board committees and the full board;
  • fully funding student success initiatives;
  • monitoring retention and completion rates; and
  • ensuring that tuition and fee resources are repositioned/shifted to meet student needs. In this example, the institution’s foundation board also committed to supporting the institution’s need-based financial aid programs.

Another BP mentioned that her board has been interested in spending more time talking about how to support students who are provisionally admitted to institutions within the system. While enrollment managers and academic advisors regularly connect with these students, the board has shifted its focus to broader conversations about strategies, sometimes referred to as “high-impact practices” (HIPs), that focus on scalable strategies for students who might need more support.

  • Many boards are interested in scaling up proven strategies and asking institution and system leaders how to offer more high-impact opportunities to students with limited financial resources. They are also interested in smart advising software and predictive analytics to monitor student progress and provide targeted interventions that improve student progress.

In the second of two breakout groups, another BP described his role in working with his president and senior administrators to provide board members with the right information about students at the right time (in other words, not just before an accreditation review or before national rankings are published). This requires agreement among key leaders about what information and metrics will be shared and discussed on a regular basis. In this example, the BP indicated that his board has moved from receiving “a data dump” of information to streamlined information and data focused on key metrics. Ultimately, this process has led to better, more productive conversations about board-level dashboards and monitoring and oversight of student success goals.

Finally, one BP described how her board’s composition and the composition of the student body have changed conversations related to student success. At this particular institution, nearly 90 percent of students are eligible for Pell Grants. The board is now focused on:

Key Takeaways

BPs can support the work of boards and institutional leaders as they define student success, measure progress toward goals, support all students, determine who is managing student success initiatives (day-to-day operations), and fund student success priorities.

  • The potential for board value-added is significant, and so is the potential for boards to fall down rabbit holes or become distracted by a data dump. BPs can help their presidents, senior leaders, and board members focus on key metrics.
  • Well-framed discussions by the board and appropriate committees are essential to board oversight of student success. Board professionals have a role in shaping and supporting board agendas and these discussions.

Board members must ensure that institutional resources are aligned with affordability, retention, and educational quality as they relate to student success. Additional investments in services that have been shown to support student success, such as mental health counseling, health centers, disability services, emergency loans, and other programs that support the health and well-being of students cannot be overlooked.

The work of maintaining enrollment retention, graduation, and post-graduate achievements will be harder for several reasons in the years to come. Building board capacity for oversight of new strategies is a timely undertaking. It also requires board professionals to serve as strategic thought partners.

Foundation boards are essential partners in these critical conversations. They must know their institution’s needs and encourage donors to support student success initiatives. Institution and system leaders should share data and student success information with foundation leaders.

The most effective and high-performing boards recognize that it is everyone’s responsibility to encourage and support all students. They make time to understand the needs of their students and to celebrate their accomplishments.

Cristin Toutsi Grigos is the AGB associate vice president for content strategy and development.