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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.

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.

Keeping Them Online and in School

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."

Beyond Piecemeal Data Tracking

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

Ed Kelty"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 24/7 instructional 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 Community College

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 research department.

"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.

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