Data-Driven Retention Strategies
Keeping Them Online and in School
Using data to track and manage student enrollment is steadily becoming a standard practice on both two-year and four-year campuses.
- By Dian Schaffhauser
Using data to track and manage student enrollment is
steadily becoming a standard practice on both two-year
and four-year campuses. Data mining enables colleges
to create predictive models for identifying behaviors
that put students at risk for dropping out, flag students
who engage in these behaviors, and help identify
practices that work in retaining at-risk student populations.
Community colleges face particular retention
challenges-- both new and evergreen-- that require
creative ways of thinking about data-driven retention
strategies. For example, as online-course enrollment
booms for two-year institutions, online attrition follows
suit. And tracking high-risk student groups (such as
athletes) is a necessary but insufficient tactic to keep
them enrolled on campuses where support services are
stressed by limited resources. Here's a look at two
community colleges that are successfully taking
on enrollment and retention challenges.
Tulsa Community College's Metro Campus
TULSA COMMUNITY COLLEGE usually has an online
program enrollment of 10,000 out of a total enrollment of 26,000. This
past fall semester it was closer to 11,000. "We're busting at the seams,"
declares Randy Dominguez, dean of distance learning for the four-campus system in Oklahoma.
Unfortunately, those seams are leaking as well. Dominguez reports that these online classes had a higher drop rate than
campus classes, a problem that has been persistently true for the college's distance learning courses.
Tulsa can take some heart in knowing it is not alone in this problem. According to a 2007 literature review on strategies
for reducing distance learning attrition, "Attrition rates for classes taught through distance education are 10 to 20 percent
higher than classes taught in a face-to-face setting." The reasons, according to the study, are many: difficulties with time
management, personal issues (finances, child care, job demands), and problems with the courses themselves (unclear
directions, inadequate support, lack of feedback from the instructor, and so forth). Dominguez believes that many of his students have unrealistic expectations of what taking an online course means: "A lot of times people think it's going to be
easier. They drop when they find it's not. Or they think it's flexible, so they may not even log in for several weeks. Then
they find out they're behind and decide to drop the class."
Genesee advisers have access
to up-to-date, consolidated
student information via a
web-based overlay of the campus
SunGard Banner system.
Stemming Online Attrition
Not content to see this kind of continual fallout, during the summer of 2009 Dominguez started a pilot project to see how he
could use online tools to help the college boost online retention numbers. "I'm a technology person and I'm a little more tool-oriented,"
he points out. "I want to find things to help us do the job, not just rely on our own processes getting better."
The school went with Starfish Early
Alert from Starfish Retention Solutions,
an early-warning and student-tracking
system that plugs into the campus
Blackboard Learn (Release 8) environment.
Starfish Early Alert allows the
college to identify at-risk behaviors
before students withdraw. The customer
sets flags, which act as alerts to notify
the college about some event or activity
that signals disengagement on the part
of the student-- processes that formerly
were handled by faculty manually.
At Tulsa, alerts are generated, for
example, when a student goes seven days
without logging into Blackboard; if an
assignment is 24 hours late or seven days
late; if a grade point average falls below
70 percent; and, most recently, if a midterm
is missed. Once a flag is raised for
a given student, faculty, advisers, and
administrators receive e-mail alerts. In
some instances, the student also receives
an e-mail, sent from Starfish itself to the
e-mail address maintained in the Blackboard
system for that student.
The project is new enough that
Dominguez can't yet determine its
effectiveness, but he is convinced that
Starfish will assist Tulsa with its early
remediation efforts, if only because it
has already helped with his most persistent
headache: initial student log-in.
"My biggest problem has always been
getting some students to log in for that
first time," he says. "This summer I had
35 students. I had about eight who did
not log in. When we started Starfish up
two weeks into the class, those [automated]
e-mails started going out. They
all logged in. They all engaged in the
class. They'd ignore a message from the
instructor directly, but not the message
from Starfish." Other instructors were
reporting similar responses. He admits
that he's baffled by the change in student
behavior, but nonetheless pleased.
The Early Alert program is open on an
opt-in basis to other faculty running
online courses; for the summer pilot, 25
online instructors chose to participate.
Tulsa also will shortly implement
Starfish Connect to allow online instructors
to set up online office hours. Starfish
will manage the calendar and scheduling
piece, and faculty will communicate
using Wimba Classroom, a virtual classroom
environment that allows faculty
and students to interact via audio, video,
chat, and application sharing.
Ultimately, says Dominguez, technology
is an enabler for the larger challenge
of human engagement. "This is a people
issue. We need to better engage with our
students, faculty, and staff, and it's not
going to happen on its own unless you
have tools to create those connections."
The mission of Genesee Community
College in Batavia, NY, midway
between Buffalo and Rochester, is
straightforward, says Virginia Taylor,
vice president for student and enrollment
services: "To engage the at-risk student
in the college process so that he or she
can attain a degree and have the middle class
lifestyle that everyone desires."
That at-risk demographic includes
just over 200 student athletes-- a fraction
of the total enrollment of 7,000 at
the seven-campus college-- who have
become the target of an ever-expanding
experiment in student retention over the
last four years.
It started, Taylor relates, when Margaret
Heater, assistant dean for student
development, happened on a bunch of
student athletes hanging out in study
hall, a three-hour-a-week requirement of
their scholarships. Nobody was really
studying. So Heater and Peggy Sisson,
the college athletics director, decided to
move the athletes' study time into an
underused but well-staffed tutoring center.
"That was a huge transition," Taylor
says. "They have to clock in and out. We
have good accountability. The students
are getting academic support, working on papers, using library websites."
Next, Heater tackled the challenge of
automatically tracking student-athlete
class attendance. "The code of conduct
is hitched to how many classes you
miss," Taylor explains. "If you miss
class, you don't play." Previously, the
students would carry a piece of paper to
each of their instructors and have it
signed to prove they were in class.
In 2006-2007, the process was moved
to e-mail. Faculty members were emailed
a request that included the
names of the students in their classes.
They responded to that and the information
was re-entered into a Microsoft
Access database for tracking. Two years
later, in 2008-2009, Taylor figured out
how to integrate Outlook with Access so
that entering the faculty response into
Access was automated, "which was a
little better," she says.
Walking the Talk
"THE WHOLE IDEA of how to support
students effectively using technology is
one of the things that Rio Salado College (AZ) has embraced over the years, so Rio
fits in very well with the goals of the
American Graduation Initiative. As an
institution we're really focused on our
support services to students. Our online
learning system, RioLearn, supports
every-week starts, so we have 50 starts
every year and, as a student, you don't
have to wait to start a course. A student
can accelerate or decelerate progress
through the course, with faculty
approval.We also have a consistent
interface across the
board, a 24/7 technical
help desk, a
help desk, and a system
of alerts. So Rio
has positioned itself
to make the student
experience as efficient and as painless
as possible, making sure that [students]
always have the service and support that
they need, and when they need it."
-- Ed Kelty, vice president for information
ser vices, Rio Salado College, a Maricopa
The college also designed a system
that automatically notifies Sisson, the
athletics director, when an athlete
changes his or her schedule and the total
credit hours fall below 12 credits or fulltime,
which could affect his or her eligibility
(to maintain eligibility, an athlete
must remain at full-time enrollment).
That allows Sisson to intervene in order
to preserve the student's eligibility.
But Genesee needed more than a
piecemeal tracking system. What Taylor
was really looking for was a means to
give advisers access to as much of a student's
profile as was available. "It's
important to know if a student is on probation
or not. It's important to know that
he or she is a veteran," Taylor explains.
"It's important to know a student is in
the right major and that he or she is
doing OK in class-- 'Gee, you didn't
have a good semester last time. What
happened?'-- whatever the triggers are."
So the college created a proprietary
web-based overlay to the its SunGard HE
Banner system that enables an adviser to
gain a browser-based snapshot of a student's
information: class status, holds and
restrictions, placement testing, transfer
credits, and other streams of data.
To help feed the data streams, Taylor
sends an e-mail reminder to faculty four
times a semester requesting that they
report on the student athletes in their
classes. "College faculty really do want
student athletes to be accountable academically,"
she says. "This has hit a
nerve with them. Plus, it helps us beat
back the old-school notion that athletes
are 'given' grades."
The new approach has several advantages.
Now when a student meets with an
adviser, the adviser has an up-to-date and
consolidated view of that student's data.
Also, because faculty are seeing that data
through a web browser, it reduces the
need for them to go into the Banner Baseline
system for data lookups (and the
need to train them on how to do that).
"You don't really want people on the system
with update access," Taylor cautions.
"As an adviser you may have to update
things, but I don't like that as a business
process. My drive is to say, 'No more
Baseline. You gotta use the web.'"
The efforts are seeing payoffs.
Whereas 18 student athletes were ineligible
to compete during the 2007-2008
academic year, that number dropped to
two in the 2008-2009 year.
Now Taylor expects to apply lessons
learned to other cohorts: recipients of
federal TRIO grants, students in Genesee's
residential housing, science/engineering/
math students who receive
scholarships, and other at-risk students
as defined by the college's institutional
"The student-athlete profile was really
the first crack at taking ourselves off
of using Banner Baseline offline and
making us work on the web," says Taylor.
"But is it the most important thing
we could do in retention? I don't think
so. Is it something we can do? Yes. Is it
making a difference? Absolutely. It
makes a huge difference."
What is the most important thing
Genesee (and other community colleges)
could do in regards to retention?
"Give everyone a mentor," she says,
then quickly adds, "We don't have
resources for that. Doing that would
cost me half a million dollars."
The affordable alternative, according
to Taylor, is to balance the use of technology
in a way that takes care of the students
who are easier to serve, then
figuring out who still needs to be served
face-to-face. "That'll be our challenge for
a long time to come," she concludes.