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Retention | Project Spotlight

Community College Uses Student Tracking Software to Improve Completion Rates

Harper College, a two-year community college in Illinois, is using early warning and student tracking software as part of its Project Success initiative, which identifies and tracks students who are at risk of not completing their diploma or certificate programs and then intervenes to ensure those students have the guidance they need to help them complete their courses.


The seeds for the Project Success initiative were planted in 2009, when the school examined its student success rates and discovered that a significant number of those in developmental coursework were not progressing on to college-level courses.

The college developed a five-year strategic plan to improve student completion rates. One of the strategies was Project Success, which targets high school students who are beginning their first year at Harper College and who are placed in two or more developmental courses. If faculty members note that those students have missing assignments, are not attending class or have other behaviors that put them at risk of not completing the course successfully, the system flags the students so school counselors can help them get back on track. Project Success began as a two-year pilot project in the fall of 2011, and the program is now in its third year.

Technology Solution

To launch Project Success, the college wanted a technology solution to help gather data and share it between faculty and support team members. A committee evaluated the various software tools available on the market. Once committee members had narrowed the selection down to a few options, they brought in the vendors for demonstrations and tested the software themselves. In the end, the college opted for Starfish Early Alert, an early warning and student tracking system from Starfish Retention Solutions.

According to Sheryl Otto, dean of student development at the college, Harper College selected Starfish Early Alert because "it was very user friendly, easy and intuitive, and that was important because we knew we were going to be engaging hundreds of faculty across campus, both full-time and adjunct, as well as counselors, academic support teams and students, so it had to be something that could be rolled out without extensive training in how to use it."

Otto said Starfish gives the college a systematic method of collecting information, so administrators can reach out to students, get them in to a counselor and then develop a plan to get them back on track academically so they can finish their courses successfully and move on.


The Starfish team worked with Harper College to implement the software, customize it for the college's needs and integrate it with the college's Ellucian Banner student information system. Once students are flagged for monitoring in Starfish Early Alert, student development staff members can access information about those students, such as their course registrations, associated faculty and GPA, so they can use that information to track student progress and get in touch with their instructors.

Near the beginning of the semester, instructors are notified which of their students are being monitored by the Project Success system. A few weeks later, the student development team sends the instructors a survey asking if any of the students are missing classes, have any late assignments, aren't participating in class and so on. If instructors have any concerns, they can just click the associated checkboxes in Starfish Early Alert. Once a student has been flagged for follow-up, Starfish notifies the student, the Project Success assistant and the students' assigned counselor. Students are then encouraged to visit their counselor, who works with the students to help them overcome any problems they are having with their coursework. Counselors can also use Starfish to notify instructors that a student needs to meet with them or to refer a student to the tutoring center.

"It facilitates all that communication, and it also allows us to run aggregate reports, so we can look at how many students are being raised for concern," said Otto.


According to information from Starfish, during the first year of the pilot project, "56 percent of students were identified for needing extra attention, and of those, 77 percent met with their counselor." In the second year, "63 percent of students were identified, and of those, 74 percent met with their counselor before the end of the semester." The college also reported 80 percent of students in Project Success persisted from the fall to spring semester, compared with 70 percent of those who were not in the program. And in the second year, "the fall-to-spring persistence rate for students in the program was nearly 83 percent, while the college average was 76 percent."

"Those students who we are successful in getting in to see a counselor have significantly higher success rates than those students who don't follow through on seeing the counselor," said Otto. "So that has yielded significantly higher differences in persistence rates and course completion rates."

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About the Author

Leila Meyer is a technology writer based in British Columbia. She can be reached at [email protected].

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