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Student Success

How Technology Can Help Community Colleges Take Hold of Student Outcomes

Faced with steep enrollment declines and increased stop-out rates, community colleges must re-envision how they are engaging students. Here are three technology-enabled strategies to support student success.   

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Over the past two years, a global health crisis and an uncertain economy have plagued higher education admissions and enrollment, particularly in community colleges. As a result, many community colleges decided to take a step back, reflect and determine how to invest in student engagement and outcomes to better match a shifting landscape.

Community colleges serve everyone, including non-traditional, under-resourced and underrepresented students such as first-generation college students, working parents and BIPOC populations. Many of these students were disproportionately affected when the pandemic hit and at the same time, some community college students weren't prepared for the rapid transition to online learning. All of these factors contributed to steep declines in enrollment and increased stop-out rates.

So, community college leaders were left wondering, "How do we increase student enrollment while also establishing clear pathways to set all students, specifically vulnerable ones, up for post-college success?" A three-part strategy is emerging.

1) Increase Accessibility and Enhance Communication for Student Services

The first step in ensuring all students have access to services and support is enhancing communication so that they know all the options and resources available to them. Proactive, timely and human outreach should be initiated to get ahead of issues through early intervention, and communications should be customized to meet students wherever they are — online, in-person, etc. By utilizing live and automated outreach capabilities, schools can connect with students about any academic concerns or financial barriers, as well as make students feel that the institution is investing in them. With a data-driven, personalized approach, institutions can easily tailor communications to a student's preferred medium, whether that's e-mail, text or via a student information system.

According to a report by the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCSSE) at the University of Texas at Austin, 57% of surveyed students said they didn't know if their college had support services to help them cope with pandemic-related stress. An approach to highlighting mental health supports could include having clear, quick-to-find and easy-to-follow collateral on the school's website; alert texts and e-mails to remind students of scheduled sessions with advisers; and making faculty aware that support services exist. Not only should students be able to quickly find information about the services, but they should also be able to easily make appointments or reach out for more information in a centralized hub, with an emphasis on privacy and removing the stigma some students may feel when accessing mental health supports.

2) Invest in Community Partnerships and Real-World Career Insights

One of the best ways to ensure college students are workforce-ready is to put them in real-world situations where they can network and gain first-hand experience in their industry of choice. Two-year institutions are called community colleges for a reason, because of the close connection to their local communities and the employers that reside there. By building and maintaining solid relationships with industry professionals and offering internships, apprenticeships and mock interviews, schools can help guide the trajectory of a student's academic experience into their future career.

In addition, institutions that are connecting the dots between programs offered and specific career opportunities can clarify for students the pathway from classroom to paycheck. Students need to be able to easily access occupational outcomes and associated programs and/or certificates via websites and online course catalogs. Institutions also need to give students the ability to identify and match skill sets from their course syllabi and what they can expect to attain by completion of courses and programs. This critical data gives them added confidence that their program of study is truly helping the student prepare for and contribute to their future career.

3) Remove Roadblocks Through Personalized Support

Underrepresented and under-resourced students have always faced barriers in pursuing higher education, whether they be financial challenges, scheduling issues that force them to miss classes or other roadblocks. Through tech-enabled insights, college leaders now have access to in-depth qualitative and quantitative student data specific to each student and possible obstacles that block their path toward success. Faculty and administrators can use this data to initiate early interventions and streamline the process of supporting enrollment and retention strategies throughout the student lifecycle. Personalized engagement campaigns can provide proactive outreach at each stage of a student's learning journey and provide the resources and direction to stay on track. Further strategies include re-registering withdrawn students (stop-outs), engaging inactive students who need to register and driving FAFSA completion for students with incomplete applications.

As colleges refocus post-pandemic investments and make critical student-facing decisions, they are realizing the power of utilizing data-driven technology to streamline the student intake process by developing a snapshot of each individual. This allows colleges to scale outreach and create a comprehensive academic transcript that provides potential employers with the full picture of a student's activities to make them more employable. In addition, these solutions help schools with limited bandwidth and resources (mental health resources, tutoring, financial aid communications, etc.) connect with students and streamline student digital tools to set them up for success.

Community colleges around the country are the gateway to a better future for many under-represented students. As such, community colleges are placing a significant emphasis on workforce development while providing students with a sense of confidence, community and inclusion.

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