College and university leadership say the factors that lead to student graduation are as diverse as a student body; and more about common sense than technology.

student-graduation-college [Editor’s note: This story originally ran as a feature in our Oct/Nov. digital publication. Read more features part of this issue here.]

From new college rankings to government funding initiatives, higher education is under increasing pressure to prove student outcomes success with graduation rates as an indicator. But at what stage of a student’s postsecondary experience does retention become a concern, and what can an institution do to keep its students on track?

Though technology tools like an integrated LMS that can process student engagement analytics can be a helpful part of an institution’s toolkit, experts in the industry and higher-ed leadership say not only should a college or university be concerned with retention starting at admissions, but sometimes the best way to ensure students graduate is to employ common sense thinking about a student’s overall postsecondary experience.

It’s a Trifecta for Students

Dr Shawntel Landry_300By Dr. Shawntel Landry, American College of Education

I would argue that there are three primary factors that influence a student’s potential to stay on track for graduation: cost, convenience, and outcomes-based programs measured against self-evaluation and peer review methods.

Cost is perhaps the most prohibitive factor, as students who do not qualify for financial assistance or who can no longer afford to pay their way through a program are often forced to temporarily pause their progress, or withdraw altogether. As tuition prices outpace expected salaries, the risk of students falling into one or both of these categories increases.

Convenience is also a heavily-weighted factor. Coursework that’s adoptive of modern technology and flexible for the demanding schedules of today’s students–who often work and raise a family while in school–is imperative to eliminating challenges that prevent students from attending required courses. American College of Education’s online-only, 24/7 access eliminates restrictive traditional models that require students to attend either in-person or online on a specific day and/or time, in order to make degree progress.

Finally, outcomes-based programs measured through self-evaluation and peer review methods assure that students are retaining the necessary information, eliminating the likelihood that a student needs to re-take coursework, or graduates unprepared for his or her field. A 2014 study of ACE students showed that self-evaluation and peer reviews provided documentation that goals and standards set by the College were met from both an evaluator’s perspective and the students’ perception of the program. This is not the case for many other institutions.

Minding these three tenets, American College of Education has improved graduation rates and shortened time to graduation. ACE graduates 73 percent of its students compared to the national average between 50-64 percent, with 76 percent of master’s program students finishing their degrees within 18-months and without the burden of additional student loan debt. American College of Education is regionally accredited and provides affordable, advanced degree programs for educators.

Dr. Shawntel Landry, provost and interim president, American College of Education.

(Next page: No one-size-fits-all; innovative first year programs)

Don’t Be a One-Size-Fits-None Institution

michael_horn_300By Michael B. Horn, Clayton Christensen Institute and Intellus Learning

Different students attend higher education for different reasons. Understanding a student’s “Job to be Done”— the reason people “hire” products or services in a given situation—in partaking in postsecondary education is critical to helping students stay on track for graduation.

The reason why is if a college doesn’t understand what a student is trying to accomplish, then it doesn’t know what experiences it needs to provide during the application process through graduation. And if it doesn’t understand what these necessary experiences are, then it is likely to integrate the elements of its enterprise in ways that are irrelevant to what students are trying to accomplish.

One of the core reasons many students struggle at certain colleges and universities is that these institutions have historically tried to cater to lots of people with lots of different jobs in an effort to be all things to all people. As a result, they aren’t structured in a way that is optimized for any particular Job and often become a “one-size-fits-none” institution.

Once a college understands the Job that its students are trying to do, it can organize around the experiences necessary to get that Job done by stitching together the right resources in the right way. This extends from creating academic programs tailored to students’ Jobs to optimizing the learning experiences within those academic programs, and from building the proper physical spaces to optimizing a student’s social supports.

Tools are emerging to help colleges affordably create these experiences. Colleges can use Intellus Learning to help faculty members choose content that is optimized for each student. Noodle Partners can help schools customize their online offerings. Emerging learning relationship management systems like Fidelis Education and Motivis can surround students with mentors and coaches to support them through college and into their careers. And Civitas Learning harnesses data to help colleges provide the right supports at the right time for the right student.

It’s early in this revolution, but understanding the Job is increasingly allowing institutions to use a range of tools to optimize a student’s experience and realize success.

Michael B. Horn is co-founder of and a distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He is an advisor to Intellus Learning and serves on the board of directors of Fidelis Education.

Affordable Books and Innovative First-Year Programs

Jason Pierce_Mars Hill_300By Jason Pierce, Mars Hill University

Founded in rural Appalachia in 1856, Mars Hill University was established to provide an education to those who would otherwise have had little opportunity for one. Today, MHU continues to serve at-risk populations. More than half of its incoming students self-identify as first-generation, more than half are Pell-eligible, and more than half have SAT or ACT scores below published “college readiness” benchmarks.

To continue to serve these students, Mars Hill needed to grow. It began to do so on the front end, with improved admission and financial aid packaging processes leading to a 30 percent increase in residential students in just four years. Entering the second stage of its growth plan, the university has shifted its focus from recruitment to retention, with the goal of increasing its first-time full-time student persistence rate 10 percent by 2017.  To achieve this, Mars Hill has invested in two key programs.

First, Mars Hill has partnered with Silicon Valley technology services company Rafter to ensure all students have access to textbooks and ancillaries on day one. Previously, a significant portion of new students arrived without the resources to purchase books and access codes. MHU faculty identified this as the primary barrier to first-year students’ success. Using Rafter360, Mars Hill now provides all required materials at no additional cost to students.

Second, funds redirected from an institutional work-study program have been used to develop an experimental “First Year Connections” initiative. Rather than work on-campus jobs for minimum wage, students in the program participate in special first-year seminar courses and receive grants tied to events designed to help them succeed, including intrusive advising, peer mentoring, financial literacy programming, career planning, service-learning activities, and study skills development.

Based on preliminary data and initial feedback, Mars Hill expects to achieve its retention goal a year ahead of schedule.

Jason Pierce currently serves as Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and Information Services and is the university’s Chief Information Officer.

(Next page: Toolkits and the 3 Ps)

Use a Toolkit Approach Rather Than a Turnkey Solution

Cole Clark Headshot 2015_300By Cole Clark, Oracle Corporation

“Student success” as a buzzword in academic circles has become almost as over-hyped as MOOCs just a few years ago. This has occurred for some good reasons, as completion rates have dropped to precariously low levels.

Not only are there political and societal pressures to make significant improvements in this area, but there is now also a fiscal pressure as a number of performance-based funding models measure performance metrics around completion and retention.

While increased advising and mentoring can play a significant role in improving outcomes and increasing retention rates, there is no question that technology – especially predictive analytics and student engagement – is a major component in improving retention and graduation rates. These tools can provide information to faculty and advisors to ensure that the right interventions are taking place with the right students at the right time.

Further, technology tools – especially student engagement or customer relationship management technologies – can automate interventions by leveraging the communication channels relevant to today’s students and at a speed that cannot be duplicated by purely human interventions. What is also clear from the data is that early interventions – even before the student initiates study at the institution – are critical, as data from the student’s high school years can be strong indicators of who will be at-risk.

The education technology landscape is filled with start-ups and a few mature companies that tout student success solutions. Many of these are “black-boxes” into which institutions pour data from a variety of structured and unstructured sources, and “results” are returned to the institution. I would argue, however, that success indictors and metrics – while sharing some commonality across the higher education landscape – are also very specific to the institutional culture, region of the country, demographic mix of the institution, etc. Therefore, a toolkit approach (vs. a turnkey solution) is the best practice for developing retention solutions.

It is a myth that only well-off universities with deep analytics and data science expertise can pull this off. As evidence, I recommend studying the work at Valdosta State University. Their approach – thoroughly documented and tested using rigorous statistical models – has resulted in marked improvement in graduation and retention.

Cole Clark is the Global Vice President for Education and Research at Oracle Corporation.  In his current role, Cole is responsible for providing strategic planning and strategy execution support at a global level in terms of overall Education & Research solutions, including applications, technology and hardware.  

Keep it Simple with 3 Ps

gunnarcounselmanBy Gunnar Counselman, Fidelis Education

Analysts in higher education are overcomplicating retention and graduation problems. I’m going to keep it super simple, so simple in fact that there’s an acronym mnemonic device to help remember it: The 3 Ps of Success™.

For many, college graduation is a challenging goal, and like any challenging goal, people are more likely to accomplish it when they have the 3 Ps: 1) a clear purpose to motivate hard work 2) a support network of people and 3) a credible pathway (including the degree) to prepare to accomplish that purpose.

If students are failing, you simply have to analyze why in context of the 3 Ps.

Purpose. How many of your students really know what their degree plan means for them and which ones don’t know? Of those that claim to know, do they really, or do they just have a good story? If you, the educator, don’t know what they’re going to college for and why it matters to them, how will you help them? Why should they trust that the hard work will pay off if it’s not connected to any motivating purpose?

People. Which of your students have a strong personal support network of mentors from home, school, or work? Which have positive peer relationships and have a real sense of belonging at your institution? Which have professional guides and strong relationships with their faculty advisors? If you don’t know, you have no hope of helping them fill in the gaps and reach higher.

Path. Which of your students feel like they’re on track to reach their goals? Do they truly believe that if they graduate, their chances will be better? Do they see themselves as masters of their own destiny, shaping their path? How many do, how many don’t, and which are which?

This obviously seems like common sense.

But schools don’t have access to any reliable insights into which students have the 3 Ps and which do not. And if you don’t know, how can you possibly help? Like they said at the end of every GI Joe Cartoon from my youth “Knowing is half the battle.” And the other half is taking action to get your students what they need to be successful.

Gunnar Counselman is CEO and Founder of Fidelis Education, a pioneer in Learning Relationship Management, as well as a father, husband, and avid surfer.

(Next page: Analytics and taking responsibility)

Analytics Help, Especially in Community Colleges

mattlawson_300By Matt Lawson, NetApp

Analytics can play an impactful role on any campus by way of: increasing student success, improving financial aid efficiency, minimizing time to a credential, and making our campuses safer. Big data and analytics are a formidable tool that can help identify students at academic risk and thereby enabling much needed proactive intervention to help those students succeed in college. When I was the Director of Enterprise Services for Virginia’s Community Colleges, improving student success was a cornerstone strategic goal for the community colleges.

Community colleges face unique challenges with student success; in the U.S., at least 50 percent of entrants need at least one year of developmental education in order to be prepared for entry-level college courses. In improving student success, we found that if a student attended their classes, they had an increased chance of at least attaining a “C” or better in their class. This applied to online courses, which can be especially difficult for many learners as online, Internet-based education is largely self-directed and self-paced.

Because all of the courses at our colleges were hosted in a single LMS, we had the capability to track student’s virtual engagement by looking at their “clicks” in the online courseware. This type of information could prove to be valuable in improving student success. The data could show which students are most engaged and least engaged. Trending the data over time could also show which students were declining in engagement with their courses. With this information, it would be possible to set up automated alerts and workflows to connect academic advisors to intervene with students who were disengaged or trending towards disengagement, thereby improving the chances of their success.

Through examples like this, we can see where big data and analytics can have a meaningful impact on higher education.

Matt Lawson is a principal architect for NetApp U.S. Public Sector focusing on state and local government and education customers.  Prior to joining NetApp, Matt spent over 17 years in IT in a Higher Education environment. He was an IT Director at the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) and served as Vice President for Information Technology at Thomas Nelson Community College, one of the VCCS member institutions. 

Student Success is Everyone’s Responsibility

hoover-tom-01_300By Thomas Hoover, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Technology can be thought of as the only solution when it comes to improving graduation rates. There are some incredible ways that technology can help and dramatically improve a university campus environment, especially by enhancing the student learning experience. However, graduation is everyone’s responsibility across the entire campus.

The State of Tennessee has been at the forefront of the movement to improve student graduation rates. The state-approved Complete College Tennessee Act of 2010 has a profound impact on the way higher education is funded and conducted. Part of the act moved funding to a competitive model based on graduation rates among TN state colleges and universities. This is different from the previous funding model based on high student enrollment.

But that isn’t to say technology isn’t instrumental in success. With the use of data analytics, universities now have the ability to be proactive when ensuring students stay on track, and can examine student engagement on campus. For example, technology makes it possible to monitor how often a student logs into the university’s LMS—analysis has shown there is a correlation between log-ins and students’ grades. Technology also gives us the ability to use predictive forecasting and predict how a student will do in a class, allowing advisement of students in selecting majors and courses that they will succeed in.

But, thinking back to my undergrad and graduate school experiences, the times that my faculty reached out personally are what made a difference. IT involvement can be a catalyst, but interaction must happen at each level. This may start with the faculty members (and professors are instrumental), but it should include every person that interacts with students.

Offering different types of courses is also instrumental; for example, hybrid courses could play a key role in giving students choices in the type of class and style that works for them.

It is the job of the campus community to provide the framework for students with the best learning and community environment. This is something that needs to be at the forefront of the minds of every staff and faculty member. Technology is the backbone of the university, but student success is everyone’s responsibility.

Thomas Hoover is Associate Vice Chancellor and Chief Information Officer at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

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