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Youngstown State U Expands Usage of Student Retention Software

Youngstown State University is seeing quantifiable improvements in retention and grades for first and second year students two years after implementing a pilot program to test a pair of early alert applications. The Ohio institution reported its findings recently as part of an announcement that it was expanding usage of the software, Starfish Early Alert and Connect, which come from Starfish Retention Solutions.

Early Alert taps into data generated automatically by other software in use by the university. For example, automatic flags are raised based on Blackboard grade book data. The application also allows faculty to raise concerns through automatic surveys sent out the second and fifth week of the semester. The goal is to identify and flag "at-risk" students or to give kudos to students who are succeeding. Students then receive automatic emails, personalized messages and phone calls from peer mentors, personal emails from intervention specialists on campus, and continued follow-up. Connect helps students compile a list of contacts — advisors, instructors, tutors, and counselors — who can help them succeed and lets them schedule time with those helpers.

The expanded usage of the applications, which will now include all Youngstown courses, comes at a time when public universities and colleges face increased funding pressure from the state to improve graduation and course completion rates. Until 2012 Ohio awarded "challenge grants" to schools that met various goals in these areas. Beginning last year, however, the formula was modified to allocate five percent of all higher education funding based on those results, an amount that could gradually increase to 30 percent by 2015.

"Because a lot of our students are first-generation, they are often unaware of the academic and financial impact of stopping classes or simply not attending," said Jonelle Beatrice, interim executive director of student life and director of the Center for Student Progress at Youngstown. "Our focus has been to change the campus culture from one where students were used to withdrawing or stopping...to one where students are informed of the impact of their actions early enough so they can make better decisions."

In 2011 the institution began using Starfish's products to provide a way for faculty and others to communicate with each other regarding the status of students who appeared to be falling behind. Among the reasons Starfish was chosen against three competitive products were its usability, ease of implementation, and its integration with the campus' installations of Ellucian Banner and Blackboard.

Before Starfish was adopted, only two percent of faculty members worked with previous outreach systems. With adoption of Starfish and an increased focus on faculty outreach, that participation has grown to 34 percent, the university reported.

Individual courses have also seen a difference in completion rates between those courses where faculty used the Starfish software and those that didn't. For example, the completion rate for one section of a psychology course that didn't use Early Alert was 58.5 percent compared to 63.7 percent for a section that did.

"In our reviews of the various early alert systems, we wanted a system that could be proactive for all students, not just those considered to be at risk. It also had to be easy for faculty to use. Because the Starfish system directly connects to our Banner and Blackboard systems, we have essentially put our student success system in the hands of our faculty members," said Beatrice. "We also really liked that the Starfish system is built around providing students with a dedicated, personalized support network. This is consistent with [the Youngstown] model of tagging students and getting them into appropriate student services quickly."

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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