Technology, interaction can bring big retention gains to small colleges

Some small colleges have taken cues from large campuses struggling with retention rates.

Electronic lists detailing which students are in danger of dropping out of college have become a favorite of campus administrators trying to curtail falling retention rates. Classes teaching what students should expect during their higher education careers, however, are often the most critical piece of a student retention initiative.

A number of colleges and universities have created in-house retention software that alerts officials when a student is failing her classes or behind on tuition payments, and educational technology companies have for years marketed management systems and online programs that have, in many cases, helped steadily decrease the number of students quitting school less than halfway through their academic careers.

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Colleges with open enrollment policies—allowing high school graduates to register and attend classes without specific qualifications—have fought for decades to ebb their relatively high dropout rates.

Western Iowa Tech Community College (WITCC) is one of those open-enrollment schools that have struggled to boost enrollment levels over the 5,000-student mark. Using a computer-based retention system made by Datatel, college officials sift through hundreds of retention warning reports based on students’ attendance, payment status, and number of dropped classes.

“As we all know with open enrollment, sometimes students are coming in the front door and going out the back,” said Janet Gill, the community college’s dean of enrollment services.

WITCC’s retention program spotted more than 600 students in danger of dropping out of school within the first six weeks of installing the system, she said.

The college saw retention improvements after it hired 10 part-time employees to come to campus and contact the students targeted by the computer-generated retention reports, said Juline Albert, WITCC’s dean of students.

The new part-time liaisons, working 5-10 hours every week, called freshmen who had not yet registered for orientation, along with current students who applied to WITCC but had not registered for classes, students who left school during the previous semester, and those who hadn’t graduated and weren’t registered for any upcoming courses.

College officials said using the computer program and the part-time liaisons helped the school retain about 300 students last year.

All retention alerts are sent to WITCC’s team of liaisons, officials said, but some cases are routed to specialists. Ed Koster, director of information systems at WITCC, said the records of students with personal conduct issues are sent to campus security officials, and resident advisers are assigned to any student with a housing problem that could lead to a dropout.

Koster said the Datatel retention system, accessible by administrators across campus, has sped up the process of finding potential dropouts and forwarding their cases to the proper college department.

“In just two clicks, now everyone on campus has the ability to save a student,” he said.

For major research universities, gaining or losing 100 students would hardly register in campus finances. But for small liberal-arts colleges, bringing in tuition from an extra 100 students can make an impact, or—at the very least—grab decision makers’ attention.

Baldwin-Wallace College, a 3,800-student campus in Cleveland, used the school’s College 101 class—designed to help freshmen acclimate to on-campus life and set educational goals—to boost retention by 15 percent from 2005-08, improving retention by more than 100 students through 2010.

“It’s not a large number of students, but it’s very valuable still,” said John DiGennaro, director of educational technology.

The school used Campus Pack, an online portfolio complete with blogs, wikis, podcasts, and journals made by Learning Objects, a Washington, D.C.-based social software company, as a foundation of the course.

Freshmen enrolled in Baldwin-Wallace’s College 101 class, which students take during their first semester, are required to create “action plans” in the web-based Campus Pack program, DiGennaro said.

New students can lay out ideas for which majors interest them, maintain blogs detailing their everyday campus life, and post academic highlights that could help professors and instructors better understand students’ backgrounds before the start of a semester.

Baldwin-Wallace didn’t rely solely on the online Campus Pack program. The school recruited more than 200 alumni volunteers to mentor freshmen in the College 101 course, helping the teenage students better understand and forge a reliable path to graduation.

“I think technology can facilitate these things, but it’s not necessarily the silver bullet,” DeGennaro said. “Technology can help connections, and that’s one of the fundamental pieces of our initiative.”

Some small schools have taken retention cues from some of the country’s largest campuses, such as the University of Kansas.

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.

Estrella Mountain Community 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.

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.”

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