retention rates

Can colleges turn to a healthcare model to boost retention rates?


A patient-care model borrowed from the healthcare sector is helping Middle Tennessee State University created a tiered student-support system designed to improve retention rates.

Troubled by student retention rates that remained unchanged over the past 20 years, Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) recently turned to a patient-care model from the healthcare industry as a possible solution. And early indications are that the problem is responding to treatment: In just one year, the 23,000-student institution saw the number of students returning for the spring semester rise by 400.

The healthcare model, known as Population Health Management, has been tailored for the needs of MTSU and other schools by Education Advisory Board, a consulting and research company that provides a predictive analytics solution called Student Success Collaborative to about 200 institutions.

In the healthcare setting, PHM aims to make the most efficient use of scarce resources by providing differing levels of support to three patient groups: low risk, rising risk, and high risk. At one end of the spectrum, low-risk patients require little care; at the other, high-risk patients need a broad array of expensive medical services. Interestingly, the middle group is where medical providers see the best chance to impact long-term health outcomes. “These rising-risk patients may have an identifiable condition, such as diabetes, but perhaps it’s not a problem right now,” explained Ed Venit, a senior director at EAB. “If healthcare providers catch the problem through some really aggressive monitoring, they can prevent them from moving into the high-risk category. ”

MTSU and EAB have been working together since late 2014 on how the PHM approach can be molded to tackle the issue of student retention, which presents many of the same challenges. Central to any initiative of this sort, though, is a robust analytics capability. Predictive analytics have been front and center in higher education for the past five years at least, so Venit feels most colleges and universities are now in position to benefit from a PHM-style approach. “You need to have analytics for this to work,” he said. “The good news is that most schools now have a tool of some kind.”

While the data set used by MTSU is unique (as it is for most schools), it shares commonalities with information sources available at most U.S. colleges, usually through the SIS. “We want data sources that have at least 10 years’ worth of information; include every student on campus; have high predictive value; and, maybe most important, sources that are relatively easy to obtain,” said Venit about EAB’s approach to working with schools. “If you have to go around campus gathering data, it becomes a very weighty endeavor for the IT office. It can extend implementation time or even kill the project altogether.”

(Next page: Choosing indicators and tailoring services to boost student retention rates)

Choosing Indicators

MTSU, for example, uses academic performance as one of its key indicators for at-risk students. “Students who come to the institution and earn less than a 2.0 GPA in their first semester are very much at risk,” said Rick Sluder, vice provost for student success at MTSU. “If we catch those students early enough, we can focus on them early.”

While a low GPA may seem an obvious indicator of trouble, Sluder notes that many students who earn a 2.0 or 3.0 GPA also end up leaving the institution before graduation. In situations like these, deeper analysis of the data is required to identify at-risk students. “We look at students for downward-trending GPAs, for instance, or students who have missed a critical course or taken courses out of sequence in their majors,” said Sluder. “As for critical courses in a major, a C is not enough in a lot of cases. In one of our Biology classes, for example, only 35 percent of students who get a C end up graduating.”

Tailoring Support Services

Identifying which students are low risk, rising risk, and high risk is only the beginning, though. The really important part of the PHM approach lies in how schools tailor their support services for each of these groups. “The old advising approach meant serving only those students who appeared in front of you,” said Sluder, noting that the onus was on the student to seek help. “New advising means looking at these risk groups and doing outreach campaigns to bring them in and then driving them to the services they need.”

As with the healthcare model, the goal is to apply the school’s limited resources where they are needed most. “In conventional advising, 60 percent to 80 percent of your resources may be allocated to students who are actually at low risk of dropping out,” says Sluder. “These are the students who come for advising when they’re supposed to, are ready to register for the courses they need, and take care of financial aid.”

In reality, says Sluder, students like these need only an estimated 20 percent to 30 percent of the available resources, and contact with them can be in the form of what Venit calls “nudges,” timely reminders of deadlines and action items. “A lot of these students can be served in self-service environments, as well as by e-mail, Skype, and other types of appointments,” added Sluder.

As in healthcare, the mother lode is those students who are considered to be at rising risk. “Why wouldn’t you spend 60 percent to 70 percent of your time on that group?” asked Sluder. “That’s the group where you can make the difference and turn the tide in terms of retention rate.”

Investing in Advisors

As for those students deemed to be at high risk of dropout—provisional admits or students on academic probation, for example—high-touch care is the prescribed cure. “Studies have proven again and again that the more attention you devote to this population, the better they do,” said Venit. “You’ve got to surround that student with care much like you surround a high-risk medical patient.”

Providing an appropriate support system at MTSU involved a complete rethinking of how the school interacts with its students. “This has been a major transformation for our institution,” said Sluder, noting that the traditional advisor ratio was 1:1,200, with faculty members handling much of the advising.

As part of the new approach, MTSU hired 47 advisors who work in newly established advising centers in each of the university’s eight colleges. This setup gives advisors a direct connection to the academic programs, including the faculty, chairs, and deans. The ratio of advisors to students now stands at 1:240.

The role of these professional advisors is absolutely key, according to Venit. “The trend in student-retention efforts is toward assigning ownership,” he said. “These specialists are almost case managers. It’s their responsibility to help these students succeed all the way to graduation.”

The result is an MTSU advising program that has gone from passive to proactive, with advisors reaching out to students, referring them for tutoring, and connecting them to departments and campus organizations that can help them before it’s too late.

This reorganization did not occur in a vacuum. The school has also embarked on redesigns of its most critical courses in a bid to create a more engaging environment for students, and it now offers tutoring and pre-tutoring for more than 180 courses every semester.

None of this comes cheap, of course. The price tag to hire the 47 new advisors alone was $3 million, which was raised from faculty slots that were left unfilled as enrollment decreased over the past several years.

From an ROI perspective, however, Sluder sees nothing but upside. “It’s far cheaper to retain a student than it is to recruit a student,” he explained. “The math was quite astounding: By losing 400 fewer students in the spring semester, the net revenue calculation was more than $1.5 million.”

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