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Retention & Advising | Feature

5 Ways to Save Students--and Money

Retention and advising tools help students stay in school and graduate. But they can also be a boon to a school's bottom line.

For students, the financial ramifications of not graduating are eye-opening: Over the course of their lifetimes, students without a degree will earn an average of $800,000 less than their cap-and-gown brethren, according to the nonprofit College Board. The number is even more depressing in light of another statistic: In 2009, only 55 percent of college students were expected to earn their degrees within six years, according to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.

While helping students succeed is central to the mission of higher education, the high dropout rate hits colleges and universities the same way it hurts the dropouts themselves--right in the wallet. Here, CT looks at five ways technology can improve retention and advising programs, and help schools save money at the same time.

1. Increase Productivity
Many schools, particularly community colleges, have seen tremendous surges in enrollment. Without technology, scaling up an advising program to handle the influx is an expensive proposition. According to Michael George, registrar at the University of Alabama, technology serves as a "force multiplier."

In less than a decade, enrollment at his university has ballooned from 18,000 students to more than 32,000. "It's the president's vision that we eventually grow to 38,000, but at the same time he doesn't want to see large growth in infrastructure," explains George. "We're trying to do more with the people we have, and do it better and smarter."

Since the beginning of the 2009-2010 academic year, the university has relied on DegreeWorks, from SunGard Higher Education, as a multipurpose advising and degree-audit tool. "It provides for the needs of the students, the staff, and the faculty, as well as folks in the Office of the University Registrar," says George. "For the first time in a number of years, everybody's on the same page."

DegreeWorks dramatically streamlines erstwhile time- and labor-intensive processes such as accreditation and reporting. The College of Communication and Information Sciences tweaked its DegreeWorks program to match student records with guidelines for accreditation by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. "DegreeWorks calculates everything for me, for the adviser, and for the student, helping them finish in four years," says Mary Ann Bradley, the college's registrar.

Still in the works is a plan to adapt the software for academic compliance reporting to the NCAA for Alabama's renowned Crimson Tide athletic program. "You're looking at as many as 800 athletes each semester," says Denny Savage, associate university registrar for academic services. "It takes our certification staff two to three weeks, pretty much working around the clock, to compile the summary report." He anticipates being able to pull together the report in a matter of hours once the system is up and running in fall 2012.

Reporting on athletic compliance to the NCAA is a complex procedure, but it pales in comparison to the convoluted realm of transfer credits. In Texas, where a common core curriculum is transferable among state institutions of higher education, all schools must report when students have completed it. The degree-audit system at the University of North Texas makes compliance relatively straightforward--not something about which all schools in the state can boast.

"We already had the system when the state implemented this rule," says Mike McKay, assistant dean for undergraduate curriculum in the College of Arts and Sciences. "Schools that didn't had to track these things manually. I'm sure that gave them great impetus to find money for a degree-audit system."

UNT uses u.achieve from College Source, and has offered it to students as an online interactive feature since October 2009. According to David Meek, manager of degree audit systems, more than 1 million degree audits were run in the first 26 months after the tool was made available to students, advisers, and registrar staff. Of those audits, approximately 248,000 were generated by students.

2. Improve Planning
Many faculty and administrators tend to think of advising tools in narrow terms: as a way to help students navigate the school's academic requirements. Less well known is how much money these tools can save schools in the area of resource planning and allocation. Mt. Hood Community College (OR), for example, uses AgileGrad to forecast demand for services.

"I consider this part of our overall business intelligence toolbox," says CIO Jay Crowthers. As students use AgileGrad to plan their route toward a degree, the school can see in advance how many class sections, classrooms, instructors, lab facilities, and other resources will be needed. "Degree planning is the most straightforward way to project demand," adds Crowthers. Before implementing AgileGrad, "we didn't have predictive tools until students registered for classes--and that's too late for planning."

Although AgileGrad was bought by Hobsons in 2011, it was developed in-house at Mt. Hood for a community college environment. Louisiana Tech University is the first four-year school to have had a voice in its continuing development, explains Pamela Ford, dean of enrollment management. Its first implementation has been in the College of Engineering and Sciences: 317 freshmen have created degree plans since 2011.

The program gives faculty an early look at how many students plan to take each course. If 120 students are planning to sign up for a class that has only 30 seats, for example, the system can help planners determine how to handle the overflow. "If we add sections to fill the demand," explains Ford, "the system will tell us, for example, that the best time to offer that class is Monday and Wednesday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., because 59 students don't have a course conflict at that time." The system can then send a message to students that a section has been added.

3. Support for Staff Advisers
While advising and retention software can lead to efficiencies in planning and productivity, its real value lies--academically and financially--in keeping kids in school. However, any school that intends to replace advising staff in favor of a tech solution may end up being penny-wise and pound-foolish. "Back in 1994, when we were looking at a degree-audit system," recalls McKay, "several vendors told us that, if we were to invest in their system, students wouldn't need advisers, so we could cut that budget."

In reality, schools are likely to save more money--by keeping more kids in school--by using tech solutions to complement the efforts of their existing advisers. Instead of spending time juggling schedules and checking prerequisites, advisers can focus on providing substantive support for students.

"We have mandatory face-to-face advising sessions for all students every enrollment period," says Ford. "Those conversations in the past have been largely about scheduling. AgileGrad allows us to change that conversation." Students are required to have a degree-plan printout before meeting with their advisers, so a lot of the scheduling detail is taken care of and "there can be more meaningful conversations around career goals."

Advising is staff-intensive, encompassing phone calls, e-mails, walk-in questions for the front desk, and one-on-one meetings with advisers. At UNT, McKay estimates, there are more than 100,000 advising contacts with students every year, an average of 10 per undergraduate. As a result, he says, students are more aware of where they stand in terms of requirements, and where they may fall short.

"It actually encourages them to take advantage of the services at a greater rate, but that's a good thing in terms of building relationships with students. The more time we're able to spend with students to answer their questions and direct them to resources, the more positive feelings they'll have about the university and the more likely they are to stay."

Making advising tools available online makes sense for another reason--it's where the students are. If schools expect to engage students, they need to follow them online. "Students expect that today," notes Crowthers, just as they expect to be able to do their banking online rather than standing in line during business hours. "Schools are just now starting to meet those expectations."

4. Provide Early Warning
Troubled students rarely run a flag up a pole when they need help. In the past, colleges and universities have focused on at-risk students only when they've gone seriously off the rails. By then, it's often too late. Early intervention is key to understanding the issues facing students and resolving them.

Dale Nesbary, president of Muskegon Community College (MI), asserts that "the best recruitment a college can do is to retain the students they have." To help ensure that Muskegon holds onto its students, the school has implemented Course Signals, an early intervention system from SunGard Higher Education that alerts students as early as the first week or two of the semester if they are academically at risk.

Course Signals employs traffic light icons to tell students how they are faring in each course. In addition, Course Signals picks up at-risk indicators from the student-information system. "You can select indicators to build a risk expression, part of the algorithm based on a predictive model created by John Campbell at Purdue University, where Course Signals was developed," explains Mike Alstrom, Muskegon's CIO.

A Muskegon pilot of the system, involving 11 sections and a total of 277 students, saw both qualitative and quantitative improvement. Besides higher grades--increases in the number of A's and B's, and corresponding reductions in grades C and lower--instructors found heightened motivation in students who received warnings. In a post-pilot survey, students reported a greater likelihood of meeting with their instructors, using the tutoring center or library resources, studying more, and teaming up with a study buddy.

In terms of dollars and cents, says Nesbary, every student who drops out represents a loss of $2,500 in annual tuition revenue for Muskegon, a community college on the low end of the tuition ladder. Obviously, the higher the price tag, the greater the loss. Although the cost of a retention-management solution (RMS) varies depending on how it's implemented, Nesbary says it would take a mere handful of "saves" each year for Course Signals to pay for itself at Muskegon.

Course Signals puts the onus on the student to heed--and address--any academic warnings they receive. FinishLine, an RMS from Jenzabar, works behind the scenes by flagging at-risk students for intervention. Configurable by each school, the system weighs a host of factors including attendance, high school class rank, standardized test scores, grades from previous semesters, chosen major, financial circumstances--even whether a student is resident or a commuter.

FinishLine has worked well for Flagler College (FL), which added the system to its Jenzabar ERP and LMS suites three years ago, and supplemented it with an add-on analytics feature the following year.

Flagler has seen an increase in retention in the range of 2 to 3 percent. "You could put a dollar amount on that if you wanted to, but the thing we're most excited about is that we're more interactive with our students," says CIO Joseph Provenza. "The Office of Advising and Retention sees a lot more people because it knows about a lot more people. That's huge."

5. Improve Recruitment
Provenza thinks that current usage of RMS is just tapping the surface of its potential. "Everybody talks about retention on the back end: We've recruited them, we've accepted them, we have them, now how do we retain them? If you're really smart with the analytics, you gather up the data over the course of time and work right back around to the front end."

Provenza believes that RMS data can be mined to help schools identify the kind of students who would be a good fit for an institution in the first place. He foresees a system that "not only alerts us to a student who might leave, but tells us what makes up a student who's likely to stay. If we recruit students who are better suited for our institution and take better care of them when they're here, that closes the circle. Everybody benefits." Such an approach could have two financial benefits: reducing recruitment costs by facilitating more targeted efforts; and reducing the dropout rate, with all its concomitant benefits.


Protecting Your Investment
The public is justifiably focused on the student burden of obtaining a college education. Less publicized are the costs eaten by institutions when students drop out. Improving the dropout rate by only a few percentage points can add up to a lot of money. Here's how:

  1. Alumni Giving.

    If students don't graduate--and have a fulfilling experience while at school--they're unlikely to give money later in life. As federal and state education budgets get trimmed, universities are looking to alumni to help close the fiscal gap. In 2011, giving accounted for 6.5 percent of college expenditures, of which 3.8 percent could be spent on current operations, according to the Council for Aid to Education. If that doesn't sound impressive, consider this: The average research institution netted more than $90 million in voluntary giving in 2011, much of which came from alumni. According to a 2011 survey of 1,275 schools conducted by US News & World Report, 13.5 percent of alumni give money to their alma mater over a two-year period.

  1. University Rankings.

    Regardless of how misleading they may be, the US News college rankings carry a lot of weight among prospective students. And administrators know it--just ask Claremont McKenna College (CA), which submitted fraudulent SAT scores to the magazine in a bid to raise its ranking. Graduation and retention rates play a big role in determining those rankings, accounting for 20 to 25 percent of a school's final score. Even a small improvement in these numbers can translate into higher rankings--and significantly more applications. And when you consider that alumni giving (see above) accounts for 5 percent of the final score, it makes the case for improving retention and graduation rates even more compelling.

  1. Need-Blind Admissions.

    With the rise of need-blind admissions, universities--particularly at elite colleges with large endowments--can lose a significant amount of money if a student receiving assistance drops out. At MIT (MA), for example, 85 percent of students receive some kind of scholarship, reducing the annual cost of tuition and board from $55,270 to an average of $23,270. If students drop out (for reasons other than to start Dropbox), the school loses its investment. What's more, the student dropping out took a prized slot at the school from another deserving student.

  1. Government Funding.

    In many states, funding is tied to retention and graduation rates. "We have goals that are directly related to funding, and the goals are not stay-in-place goals," says Pamela Ford, dean of enrollment management at Louisiana Tech University. "They are negotiated between the institutions and the state, with all institutions having the goal of improvement."


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