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Equity-Minded Communications Boost Effectiveness of Early Alerts

student meeting with adviser

Use of early alerts — flagging at-risk students for intervention from advisers — increased by 22% in the first year of the pandemic, according to data from higher education advisory EAB. Not only are students experiencing increased emotional, social and academic needs, EAB said, but faculty are also becoming more comfortable in using early-alert systems to flag students in need of support. Yet those flags don't always lead to successful interventions. In fact, only 51% of alerts result in an adviser reaching out to the at-risk student, EAB found. And out of those communications, 23% fail to elicit a student response.

A new white paper from EAB, "Missed Connections: Recommendations to Improve the Success of Early Alerts Through Equity Based Communications," explores ways advisers can better communicate with students and improve their engagement with the intervention process. The key to more effective interventions, the company asserted: bridging equity gaps, communicating with empathy and building trust.

At many institutions, students of color receive a disproportionate share of early alerts, EAB said. A comparison of data from a private liberal arts college and a regional public institution in the Midwest, for example, found that students of color received up to twice as many alerts as their white peers. And while the alerts may reflect the true struggles and needs of those students, advising messages must to take into account different student identities and experiences in order to support equitable outcomes.

"Students of color are more likely than white students to be discouraged by negative feedback on academic performance," the report explained. "Faced with an often-unwelcoming campus environment, an early alert can feel like just another microaggression telling the student that they cannot succeed and do not belong in college."

EAB offered three recommendations for more equity-minded communications with at-risk students:

1) Build rapport. Advisers should reach out to students and establish a relationship early. Making a personal connection can "create a space for students to open up about their challenges and frustrations," EAB said.

2) Explain alerts in course materials. "Students are more likely to respond to alert outreach — and less likely to feel stigmatized — if they understand what an alert means and how it is intended to help them succeed," EAB said. By including explanatory information in course syllabi and learning management system pages, instructors can explain the purpose of early alert technology, communicate when and how alerts may be raised, and share available support resources for students. At Cal Poly Pomona and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, for example, these additions to course materials "have led to an increase in class conversations about grades, normalizing of self-advocacy and help-seeking behaviors, and increased trust between faculty members and students," EAB shared.

3) Adopt "asset-based language" in communications. As EAB defines it, "asset-based language focuses on strength and potential by emphasizing the student and avoiding harmful characteristics and code words such as 'underprepared' or 'unmotivated.'" Communications should be personalized, normalize challenges, and acknowledge the student's potential to succeed. At Campbell University in North Carolina, for example, making "small but significant changes" to e-mail wording generated a 32% improvement in the student response rate, EAB said.

The full report is available on the EAB site (registration required).

About the Author

Rhea Kelly is editor in chief for Campus Technology, THE Journal, and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected].

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