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Campus Technology Insider Podcast September 2022

Listen: At ASU Online, Empathy Is the Foundation of Student Success 

Rhea Kelly: Hello, and welcome to the Campus Technology Insider podcast. I'm Rhea Kelly, editor in chief of Campus Technology, and your host.
With higher education enrollment in decline, it's more important than ever to break down barriers to student success — and for those who stop out, create clear pathways to re-entry and completion. What does that look like in practice? At Arizona State University Online, student success coaches cultivate deep relationships with students as individuals, get to know their unique life experiences and challenges, and leverage data to better understand the multitude of factors that can impact retention. For this episode of the podcast, I spoke with Nicolette Miller, senior director of student success initiatives at ASU Online, about her team's student-centered approach and what institutions should be doing to help students reach the finish line of their education. Here's our chat.

Hi, Nicolette, welcome to the podcast.

Nicolette Miller: Hi. Happy to be here.

Kelly: So I was hoping you could kind of introduce yourself and your background and tell me a little bit about your role at ASU online.

Miller: Yeah, absolutely. So my name is Nicolette Miller, and I am the senior director of student success initiatives here at ASU Online. And so really, I oversee our success coaching teams that support our ASU Online students. So a really dynamic team of student supporters that really help students not only from the moment they register for a class all the way through to graduation. So really kind of helping students along the way overcome obstacles that they might encounter, and help them get acquainted and accustomed to the university and all the resources that are available to them.

Kelly: That must be just really rewarding because you get to see like immediate effects of what you do in terms of helping students.

Miller: Yeah, it's really incredible, actually. So I feel really lucky to do the job that I do and work with the people that I work with. Our success coaches really come from a variety of different backgrounds, but really, mostly they come from backgrounds where they're really interested in that individual's success. And so they come from helping professions, and they really want to be helpful and transformative for students. And so students come to us from all walks of life and all different types of experiences, whether it be their previous academic experience, or just their life experiences. And so they're really there in such a pivotal moment for students, when they finally succeed in that class they were nervous about, they finally figured out how do I talk to my professor, or how do I finally finish that class and still was able to maintain my work schedule, and all of these other life things that come up outside of school. And so when we have students that get to the graduation point, we are truly flooded with student comments about how their coaches have impacted their lives and impacted their trajectory and their degree program. So it's certainly not hyperbole that we're changing lives, because I read about it every semester, every session as we get student feedback. So it's pretty incredible.

Kelly: So I thought we could start with kind of a big-picture look at the ongoing enrollment decline in higher education. I looked up the latest National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data, which says that higher education has lost nearly 1.3 million students since spring 2020. So kind of a bleak landscape. How is online education being affected in all of that?

Miller: Yeah, so I think there's been a lot of sort of collective impacts from the pandemic. And so when we look at online education, we are seeing sort of a shift in the actual population of students. So I've been working in online education for 20 years. And so, you know, initially, online education was really there to support working individuals. And certainly, it still is. But in terms of the actual student populations that we're seeing, we're seeing a lot of students that are coming to us as first-year students. So that population is starting to increase. When we think about those students that finished up their high school years online because they were home from the pandemic, we're seeing a growth in that population. But we're also seeing the rest of our student population kind of impacted by all new challenges that have presented themselves since the pandemic. But we're also seeing a decline in enrollment across institutions, really in education in general. We have a really incredible team here at ASU Online, when we look at it really from what we have created in the classrooms, to our faculty, and all of the resources and support staff that we have. So we've been lucky to still experience growth where we're seeing across other sectors a tremendous decline.

Kelly: So when you think about student success, I think one of the areas of focus is sort of bringing back the students that have stopped out. So I'm wondering what your experience is with understanding the barriers to reentry for students, and maybe how those differ for traditional students versus online students?

Miller: Yeah, absolutely. So we know that a lot of our student population, especially for online students, we have a huge population of students that are transfer students. And so something that we are keenly aware of at ASU Online is that when we have transfer students that come to us, they come to us with sort of a multitude of past experiences. And so oftentimes, students are coming to us and they've attended several institutions before they've even gotten to ASU. And so we know that it's a lot easier to stop out if you've done it before. But we also hear from students that they encountered challenges that they didn't really feel supported on. And so I think when you're working with students that have had to stop out for whatever reason, it's important that we still make sure that we're available and supportive of their path moving forward. Sometimes we'll hear from students that have attended other institutions that encountered some type of issue, they left, and then they never heard from anyone. And so certainly, regular follow-up and checking in is really important. There's a lot more support that is needed now. There are so many things going on in people's lives, and they are so busy, that sometimes just being that extra ear to listen about what's happening in their life, and what might have impacted their sort of journey to their degree, we can help them sort of right the course and get back. But certainly a lot of those issues are related to things around just time, you know, and responsibilities. Probably our biggest obstacle for students returning is financial. And so, you know, we're really there to provide really individualized support for students. And so it can be very difficult to sort of navigate some of those issues if you aren't someone like me, who works at a university and knows how these things work. And so our teams are really diligent on making sure that we really build a relationship with the student in the beginning. And that they know that we're here and we're in their corner, that's really the role of the success coaches at ASU Online. So, you know, we're building really effective relationships with those students, but then we're also, when they fall off the map, we don't just let them go, we're still checking in on them and making sure that they're okay, because we need to be concerned about them as people first. And, and eventually we'll get these things sorted out for them along the way, and that takes some time. So our coaches work really closely with students that are out for a short period of time. And then we also have a reentry team that works with students who have been out for more than three semesters, but they haven't yet lost their admission to ASU. And so sometimes we'll have students that might have had something happen that created some financial consequences. So like an example of that might be, you know, maybe I had some type of illness or something that sort of created a situation where I wasn't able to be successful, and I failed all my classes. So we're really there to check in and see, tell us a little bit about what your experience has been. Tell us what happened. Let's help you work through some solutions. And sometimes those solutions might take us several months to resolve, but we're there for them to resolve it. So there certainly are a multitude of things that come up, but I would say primarily the obstacles that come up really are sort of navigating the financial piece of their education and also getting connected to why they wanted to do this in the first place. You can get really busy and life can get overwhelming and you can kind of lose your motivation. Or you can have that one professor that just was incredibly infuriating, and you just couldn't get through the class. And so you're like, well, maybe this major isn't for me. And so there's some mindset pieces there that also need to be addressed, that we help coach students through.

Kelly: Do you think that the pandemic changed the nature of the obstacles that students are facing at all?

Miller: I do. I think, I think that it was interesting, because when the pandemic sort of hit, I think everyone was sort of in shock. And all of a sudden, you know, the, sort of our pattern, patterns of life changed, where everyone was at home, and kids were at home, and all of these things happened. And then what we saw, really, at the end, kind of around the summer of 2021, was this, we saw across our student population this sort of pandemic fatigue that happened, where students sort of had been sort of shifting and changing how they had been doing things, and they had increased responsibilities with their kids at home and work change, and all this change happened. And we started to see students kind of burn out a little bit. And so that's a big piece of what our coaches do, when we start to see students that are just sort of, they're just, they need to be kind of reinvigorated and, and sort of reassess their plan for how they're, how they're moving through their education. You know, I think the, the way that people worked has changed, and that sometimes work doesn't just end. You're working from home, it's always there. And so it's very, you have to set up very clear boundaries in your life. And so when I think it also impacted people's employment and the amount of hours that they might work, when we look at even our healthcare students, you know, that population has really changed and shifted, even for when you look at the amount of hours that even some of our nursing students might be working. So things have sort of shifted and changed with the way that all of our lives have shifted and changed.

Kelly: So beyond the things that individual success coaches can do to reach out to students, are there things that colleges and universities should do at the institutional level to kind of help remove reentry obstacles for students?

Miller: Yeah, absolutely. I think that one of the things that, one of the things that we see for students that are trying to return is I think that there, there needs to be clear pathways in terms of how do I return and accessibility. So one of the things that people ask me a lot is, you know, well, do success coaches, are they giving, telling students what classes to take? Are they, are they providing financial advice? And we're really not, we're really sort of the connectors at the university. We have academic advisers that are providing some of that information, but really just kind of helping provide sort of a liaison role. So once students are out of attendance, I think there needs to be a clear pathway for how do I return and there needs to be accessibility for students to actually kind of make those steps forward. One of the things that we've done in the success center that has been really helpful is that we really leverage the data that we have. And so we're always looking at, you know, what types of behaviors are we seeing happen for students when they're actually here with us. And so some things that we might be seeing might be, you know, when we look at a course, maybe a student hasn't been present in the course for a number of days. And so that, that's a trigger for us to know, hey, we should probably check in on that student to make sure that they're doing okay. And try to kind of course correct them a little bit, or help them course correct. We'll also see things where we have really close communication between faculty and success coaches. So faculty at ASU are really communicative. And they'll, they'll send us sort of messages where they'll say, you know, this student really needs to come to my office hours, I'm really seeing that they're struggling with X, Y, and Z. And so then we'll kind of step in and help that student navigate that issue. So I think that there is a lot of information that we have, that we just have to leverage to kind of create like a support net around students before they stop out. And so that even if they do have to stop out because things happen, life happens, that they know that there's a support network waiting for them when they do want to return.

Kelly: So when you're diving into the data, like, what does that look like in practice? Like, do you have weekly meetings? Or is it really just when the system alerts you? Or how does it work?

Miller: Yeah, so we have a system in the success coaching center, where we're really sort of on a daily basis pulling data around students, really around like kind of even feedback from faculty, attendance, we're looking at, on a consistent basis, if students are getting close to being on probation we'll intervene, we will look at, Oh, the student has a difficult course coming up next session, let's reach out to them ahead of that session and start building a plan with them on how they're going to address that class. You know, we know there's challenges with math, all students are fearful of math, students are fearful of English and some of our STEM courses. So we do a lot of sort of proactive outreach of, hey, this class is coming up, I want to prepare you that this class can be kind of challenging. What are your thoughts on it? What are you thinking about it? What are some of your fears that you have around this class? And so those are some of the things that we'll reach out to students on and we measure, we measure how many students were engaging within a session, we measure retention. And so you know, we're looking at from session, one session to the next, are students continuously enrolled, because we know when students are continuously enrolled, they're more on path to graduation. So we also look at how many graduates do we have every session, how many students have applied to graduate. And so we're sort of maniacal about making sure that we're getting students to complete their degrees and get all the way to graduation. It's really, that's really how at ASU, we really believe we're going to change the world, is that, you know, getting students to that final graduation point and helping them launch is really important.

Kelly: Do you have like, specific goals in terms of what percentage of students are, you know, going to be retained or things like that?

Miller: Yeah, so we, we do, we, sometimes we'll kind of, we'll base that on what we've seen in the past. And so in prior sessions, which, truthfully is been interesting with, sort of now that we're two years out from the start of the pandemic, that data shifts and changes. And so, you know, I think our goal is to keep improving. And so we really look historically on how we've done in previous years. And as soon as I start to see something in the data, where we're seeing a dip where we shouldn't be, then obviously, we kind of dig in to the details of that. Another thing that I look at is, so for example, we sort of are constantly looking at how our outreach to students and what that looks like, and how impactful that might be. And so, you know, I'll look at historically, where we're seeing students sort of land when it comes to, one example I can think of is sort of our grades. So we have a, anytime a student gets a D or an E in a course, we'll reach out to them. And so over the spring semester, we really refined some of our outreach practices. And so I wanted to see if that made a difference year over year. And so when I looked at Spring 21 versus Spring 22, we saw that we had over 2,500 less students with D or E grades in that semester. And a lot of that had to do with a lot of the outreach that we've been doing. And certainly there's other work outside of the success coaching team around resources and how we're supporting students in math and English and all of, and faculty, there's a lot of players in this. But I can see that there is a marked improvement in terms of student outcomes, because I can see that there are a significant number less of students that have not been successful year over year. So that was a huge success for us. I think that that's sort of one of those key,key things where you know, you're on the right track in supporting students. Because when students get a D or an E grade, there are a lot of consequences for that in terms of time to graduation, financial, there's a, confidence, there's a lot of different things that can happen.

Kelly: Do you ever run across you know, when you, forms of outreach that maybe aren't, are counterproductive? You know, like if someone reached out to me and said, Hey, you got a D in this class, I might feel like, as a student, well, yeah, tell me something I don't know.

Miller: Right.

Kelly: So do you have any examples of things that didn't work so well?

Miller: You know, something that, so certainly when our coaches reach out, if somebody has a D or an E grade in the class, we train them closely on not saying that. Like, "Hi, I see you were unsuccessful." So, but more so it's, "Tell me a little bit about your session, let's walk through that together." Because it's important that students are reflecting on the choices they've made, and how those choices kind of shook out for them in the end, were they successful or not. You know, it's interesting. So one of the things that we're working on, on my team, is starting to measure sort of the efficacy of the outreach that we do. And so there are some, there's some outreach that we do where it's very reactive. And so how can we be more proactive and get ahead of some of these issues? So one of them is when we have students that are sort of being disqualified. I mean, that's, it's a difficult conversation to have with those students. But again, the discussion is really turned around, how can we help you get back on track, even though you're disqualified from the university, here are, here's what those steps look like. Probably some of our outreach attempts that are probably less successful than we'd like them to be, is when students have already dropped from their classes. So they've already made the decision. And so reaching out at that point, can be really, may not be productive in that first contact. And we know that because they've already done it, they've already made the decision. And so, but the important piece is remembering that that student could have been somewhere else previously. And when they dropped, they never heard from anyone ever again. And so keeping that line of communication open is really important for us. And so while we may not have them, say, Oh, I'm going to reverse everything, and I'm gonna go back to class, we at least, they at least have a line of communication open with the university and with their coach who they've developed a relationship with.

Kelly: Do you have any final advice for other institutions on, you know, making a positive impact on student success?

Miller: I think that something that we have to always remember is that every student is an individual, and they have their own unique life experiences, they have their own sort of experiences with education. And so we have to make sure that we're making this an easier process for them. I think oftentimes, we see, whether it be institutions or faculty, or what have you, that, you know, if a student really wants to be here, they will jump through hoops X, Y, and Z. And the reality is, is we're really here to serve them. And to really create a really inclusive university, we have to use different approaches to reach different people. And we also have to make sure that we're really accessible. And that we're not the ones creating the obstacles for students, because there's a multitude of obstacles that can present themselves in their own lives. And so I would say that piece is just really making sure that we're really student centric and that we're putting ourselves in the shoes of our students. And also, I think, for us, we've developed a really great process around just really leveraging data and how, how we can support students in a really quality way and how we can be as proactive as possible. So that's probably what my advice would be.

Kelly: That's great advice. Thank you so much for coming on.

Miller: Thank you so much for having me.

Kelly: Thank you for joining us. I'm Rhea Kelly, and this was the Campus Technology Insider podcast. You can find us on the major podcast platforms or visit us online at Let us know what you think of this episode and what you'd like to hear in the future. Until next time.

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