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Community Colleges

Student Retention and the Data Dilemma

Single-source vendor relationships can hamper an institution's ability to collect the kind of business intelligence it needs to track student retention. But it's not always possible to go the third-party route.

Community colleges face enormous retention and persistence challenges that require data toolkits calibrated to these institutions' special needs. Whom do two-year schools turn to for data tracking and analysis? For most, it's their enterprise vendor partner.

Given the economic and resource constraints under which most two-year colleges operate, this kind of reliance on a major vendor partner makes perfect sense. But a one-vendor solution also comes with limitations--most of these systems were designed for the data needs of larger institutions, leaving community colleges to make do with the data-crunching capabilities their system comes with, or to integrate customized third-party solutions. Yet, some vendors do not allow third-party product integration, and others insist on managing the integration and the ensuing maintenance issues--often with a hefty price tag. And that leaves some two-year schools in a bind.

"Community colleges like ours need out-of-the-box solutions," says Matt Hebbard, director of admissions and registrar at South Texas College in McAllen, TX. "There's just not enough money for all this customization and maintaining of third-party solutions."

Real-time Data Needs
Hebbard says that administrators at his 27,000-student community college--which is spread out over five campuses in two counties--have been focused on student retention and graduation since its inception 16 years ago. This fall, STC was expected to hit the 30,000-student mark, and by 2020 the college is projected to enroll more than 45,000 students. Ninety-five percent of its student population is Hispanic, and the school is ranked No. 3 in the US in awarding associate's degrees to Hispanics.

With numbers like these, says Hebbard, the school has to be a data-driven institution. In fact, STC is a longtime member of the Achieving the Dream organization, a network of community colleges around country that share data-driven decision-making and best practices.

"We've always had an intensive advising environment," Hebbard says, pointing to STC's initiative wherein caseload student data from high-contact staffers (often faculty trained as advisers) is handed off to the campus's retention specialists--licensed practical counselors who have been in place for about five years now.

To aid retention efforts, STC makes use of Banner modules from vendor partner SunGard Higher Education that have yielded valuable retention and persistence data--even real-time data--the school has not had access to previously. But, says Hebbard, "it's cohort information, not real-time data on individual students." And it's real-time student-level data, Hebbert insists, that will "make a world of difference" in the school's retention efforts.

Hebbard points out that at any one time, 23 percent of STC students are in developmental, not credit-bearing, courses, and with the help of real-time data on these students, "We could move this number into credit-bearing courses much more effectively. That's 5,000 to 6,000 students right there." Today, he says, "We may not know that a student is in trouble until he's been gone for three days, and that's three days already passed. With this kind of data, we could intervene quickly for any number of students who may have lost their jobs, have problems at home, or are facing financial aid difficulties."

So what's the holdup?
There are third-party products that would help the school procure real-time student-level data, Hebbard notes, but he has shied away from them because he says SunGard will not support other systems if something goes wrong.

Hebbard acknowledges that SunGard--which he is quick to point to as responsive and committed to its user and feedback groups--is working on a version of Banner with a retention dashboard, but worries that his institution needs to purchase major modules just to get any of the dashboard functionality. STC's CIO developed an in-house dashboard to help advisers keep track of retention data--but again, it's at the cohort level. The school could expand it to focus on individual students, "but right now we just don't have the resources for all the other things we need to make it happen."

Which leaves Hebbard and his team to anxiously await the next version of the Banner system (even as he admits that his institution is a number of Banner versions behind). "We see great benefit coming with the newest product," he says, "but, frankly, our main desire for it revolves around that retention piece."

A Toolkit of One's Own
Things are quite different at two-campus Montgomery County Community College (PA), based in a northwest suburb of Philadelphia. With 14,000 credit students and 12,000 annualized noncredit students, says IT vice president Celeste Schwartz, "We have data needs and we have been able to address a lot of those needs." The college was given top honors by the Center for Digital Education's 2009 Digital Community Colleges Survey, which highlighted the institution's use of business intelligence to foment student success.

Certainly, MCCC does not face some of the challenges that South Texas College grapples with. At MCCC, for instance, developmental students are not an issue, and the minority population hovers only around 20 percent. "We are lucky," Schwartz adds. "We have a tech fee budget--something that is not allowed in all states--so we have a revenue stream to pay for some things other community colleges can't."

In addition, Schwartz notes that the school's SIS/ERP vendor partner, Datatel, is not averse to working with third-party data analysis providers, like business intelligence vendor iStrategy Solutions, if campuses want to integrate systems to achieve their optimal toolkits.

"We have a Datatel retention alert system that is very sophisticated in tracking student progress and allows us to send out alerts, letting faculty send e-mails to counselors in the advising center," says Schwartz. "But we also have other solutions like SARS, which enables scheduling for advising, counseling, and tutoring, and allows comments. You have to understand that there is never a simple reporting/analytic solution; there is no single answer. As a technologist, you need to search for your own toolkit," she advises.

Schwartz points out that several of MCCC's third-party vendors handle the necessary interface, integration, and support. In fact, she notes, "Datatel's policy is not to write the interface to the third-party solution. They let that vendor do it, and provide access to that."

But Datatel also does not permit its schools to lag behind in system version upgrades. And while "some community colleges are really challenged" by the expense involved in keeping up with such upgrades, says Schwartz, she believes that when a school lags far behind in system versions it puts itself--and its vendor partner--in an impossible situation; the latest upgrades may include or enable the very retention technology advances they need. In MCCC's case, Datatel doesn't charge for the upgrades; the company does, however, charge for some of the training/consulting on new functionality, and Schwartz concedes that not all community colleges have the budget to keep up with even those expenses.

She also advises against schools building their own data warehouses or other retention-focused tools. "It's a waste of resources," Schwartz declares. "It wouldn't be wise."


Achieving the Dream:

Center for Digital Education:

iStrategy Solutions:

SARS software products:

SunGard Higher Education:

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