Recruitment & Retention

Paul Smith's College Drives Retention Efforts with Support Software, Early Warning System

Paul Smith's College, a private institution with about 900 students and about 90 faculty, has deployed Starfish software to improve the institution's student retention rate. Starfish consists of two applications: Early Alert, an early warning and student-tracking system; and Connect, which directs students to a personalized list of campus resources that can help with specific types of problems.

Traditionally, retention for the college, located in Paul Smiths, NY, has hovered at about 60 percent for students moving from the first year to the second. But, suffering the impact of the economic downturn, the institution has sought to bolster its retention efforts. That includes development of an office for student retention, an early alert process, the introduction of supplemental instruction and tutoring, and creation of an academic recovery program for probationary students. The college has also expanded retention efforts to encompass all students, not just those considered "high risk."

"We added research-proven support services and dedicated staff to help our students, but we learned that if you cannot get the student to go for help or get time-sensitive information to support services, your retention efforts will not be successful," said President John Mills. "Many of our students are first-generation college students, often from rural backgrounds. They come to college thinking they have to succeed on their own. We need to collect and share information as appropriate across the campus so that our support services can be more efficient and effective at connecting with students when they show signs of trouble."

Achieving that connection means compiling data from multiple departments to develop a fuller picture of any given student, according to Virginia McAleese, director of student success. "Indications of a student's ability to be successful extend beyond academic performance. It is important that we also pay attention to a student's level of engagement with the campus community, including their co-curricular activities, engagement in the residence halls, and interaction with admissions counselors."

The college adopted Starfish in fall 2009, which provides a centralized database for student information. The application allows the support staff to monitor academic performance as well as access feedback in real time from instructors and others on campus. During the spring 2010 term, 91 percent of faculty members used the early alert survey, communicating their concerns about student performance and raising nearly 100 flags each week of the term. Flags include academic, social, financial, and health-related concerns. Starfish triggered 700 warning flags based on individual midterm course grades as reported in the institution's Sungard Higher Education student information system, PowerCampus.

"Prior to Starfish, we had an early alert process where instructors would send us their feedback on students. Although a large percentage of faculty would participate, the process was cumbersome and time-intensive," said Loralyn Taylor, registrar and director of institutional research. "Now with Starfish, not only have we increased the level of instructor participation, but we also have made the information available to advisors in real time, without having to spend days tabulating the results. This is a huge advantage to our staff and to our students."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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