Small campuses focus on retaining students with the help of technology

Paul Smith’s College saw retention rise by 12 percent last year.

An Arizona community college and a New York campus with 1,000 students are using technology embraced by large research universities to stem alarming drops in student retention, especially among freshmen and sophomores.

Helping new college students – many away from home for the first time – stay in school through the sometimes-difficult transition from high school hallways to the campus dorm has long been a goal of colleges and universities.

Following the advice of a task force created to address falling retention rates, University of Kansas decision makers adopted software last year that would identify at-risk students with low grades and spotty attendance records who are not engaged in campus activities.

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Now, at least two smaller colleges have joined Kansas as well.

Estrella Mountain Community College in Avondale, Ariz., with an enrollment of about 15,000, has many new students in need of basic English courses – a requirement that calls for early intervention before students’ grades plummet and they leave school.

Paul Smith’s College, a private campus of 1,000 students in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, had seen its freshmen-to-sophomore and sophomore-to-junior retention rates stay steady at a five-year average of 62 percent before campus officials took action.

Estrella Mountain Community College and Paul Smith’s College used a data-mining company based in Virginia, Starfish Retention Solutions, to pinpoint which students were struggling academically and in danger of dropping out of school.

John Burke, vice president for business and finance for Paul Smith’s College, said providing much-needed help to struggling students wasn’t just in the students’ best interest, but also the institution’s financial stability.

“We have to know that the investments we make to help students succeed are going to pay off,” Burke said.

The retention software used at Paul Smith’s improved student retention by 12 percent in 2010, according to the college, with the most dramatic improvement in sophomore-to-junior year transitions.

And that 12-percent bump has increased campus revenue by $540,000.

College officials also reported a drop in the number of students in its “academic recovery” program. With faculty, instructors, and counselors being able to more easily track students with consistently low grades, students in “academic recovery” dropped by 30 percent last year.

Estrella officials used the Starfish software to find and help students who were frequently tardy for class or absent altogether. The program also took academic performance into account.

When the Starfish software flagged an Estrella student, a message was sent to a college counselor, who contacted the student.

Ninety-eight percent of faculty concerns about struggling students logged in the Estrella database resulted in student consultations with tutors and counselors, according to Starfish.

“The fact that Starfish automatically delivers that feedback to the service providers on campus makes timely intervention possible,” said Joyce Jackson, dean of academic affairs. “Faculty confidence in the system is increasing as service providers close the loop to inform faculty that their student referrals are being addressed.”

The University of Kansas launched its retention program after a 2010 report showed that almost three in 10 students who came to the school in 2007 had left three years later.

Kansas’s 28.7 percent dropout rate among fall 2007 freshmen was significantly higher than peer institutions, officials said. The university’s average retention rate after one year is 80 percent, compared with 85 to 90 percent at peer schools.

Purdue University is another large school using software programs to spot failing students before it’s too late.

Purdue launched its own university-developed retention program called Signals to warn students whose grades are dropping, offer study-habit advice, and encourage students excelling in their classes.

The Signals system doesn’t wait until midterms to alert students about dangerously low grades, like similar academic warning programs, said Nancy Wilson Head, executive director for information technology in Purdue’s Teaching and Learning Technologies Unit.

Students will get their first stoplight updates in the first few weeks of each semester, Wilson Head said, meaning they have a better chance to recover academically before crucial mid-semester tests.

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