What is a Designer’s Role in College Success?

Only 58 percent of students who enrolled at public colleges or universities in the year 2012 made it to the graduation stage after six years (2018).Worse still, this number dropped to 33 percent for those who graduated within four years, the mythological, “typical”, time it takes to go to college. Simply put, those numbers boil down to a D grade in college completion, even during the best of times. 

Fast forward to today. We’re in the center of a pandemic. It may be a decade before we know how graduation and dropout rates are impacted by the current environment—a time in which students have converted to virtual learning platforms and are experiencing a high level of sustained stress. It’s challenging enough to keep pace with learning expectations and outcomes in the best conceived circumstances and the most stable households. So what about students who have a heavier burden of challenges with learning, or at home? As we move to increased adoption of technology platforms, our education system must design solutions for the needs of student populations inclusive of the diversity among them. 

It’s true that college success looks different for everyone, and there is no set formula for getting into and getting through college. Even so, certain groups, like low income students, face greater obstacles and varied needs:

  • Family obligations
  • Lack of understanding the college application process
  • Little access to scholarship resources
  • Difficulty meeting financial obligations

Many such students may be the first in their families to attend college and don’t have someone guiding them through the application process. Or they may come from families that expect, or need, them to stay home and work. Still, others may want to avoid student debt or can’t afford childcare to attend class. No two stories are the same. However, there is a common thread: this population of students needs support beyond just the financial. They need emotional and community support to make it to the finish line.

Recent College Graduate

So, what is a designer’s role in education?

As designers it is our job to take on the responsibility of solving challenges for all groups—especially in places design can make a significant and positive impact. In this case, if we’re designing for solutions to support low income students, we might consider two distinct focal areas: 

Financial: This might include designing products and tools that support a student looking for financial aid opportunities, help with navigating loan options, or finding flexible work that dovetails with their schedule obligations.

Emotional: This might include designing products like one-touch mobile counseling to help students with day-to-day hardships they might encounter, or a mentorship matching tool that connects those having difficulty transitioning into college life with a support network, or finding resources for other circumstances like a death in the family or pregnancy.

This framework isn’t new. In fact, there’s been an exorbitant amount of research done on the needs of holistic support for students and its correlation with graduation rates. What is new, is that we’ve entered a time in which technology’s role in education is preeminent. Universities, more than ever, must partner with designers, researchers, and design strategists in taking the lead on creating intentional paths to success, firmly rooted in ethnographic research and human centered design principles.  

As designers, we must ask ourselves, “Are we serving the needs of the whole student?

By approaching the challenge with empathy, and a mind toward the balanced needs of student life—including both components of financial and emotional support—we can work toward creating scalable solutions that create more successful outcomes. 

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