Field Notes: It takes a village: Retention, persistence, and all those early alerts

"Field Notes" is a monthly Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at connect@aacrao.org. 

by Arnold Arredondo, Ph.D., Dean of Enrollment Management, Baptist College of Health Sciences.

We have all been there. The retention demo seems intuitive, even magical. Early alerts are displayed in glorious full color graphs, bevies of automated responses are queued, and trends are labeled for future interventions.  For the right price, current students can avoid pitfalls before their struggles even begin. The webinar closes with a flattering boost to your ego: more students are not only retained by the software, but also somehow just happier to be a part of your college.

Not a magic bullet

With predicted demographic declines and smaller yields, more institutions are emphasizing retention and persistence. As a result, more and more institutions are evaluating retention software and early alert notifications. Early intervention is not necessarily new. A study five years ago reported that nearly 9 out of 10 four-year and two-year colleges had systems in place to flag at risk students. (1)

Right off the bat, I am going to say the obvious-do not fall for the demo pitch! While early alert software can be magical, it cannot retain students with just a flip of the switch. Retention and persistence is a village effort. The software, while powerful, is a just tool. What struggling students desire is a clear and empathetic path to success.

Strategy before software

Purchasing retention software without a strategy in place will also cause struggles on multiple fronts. The most important one being faculty buy in. Over the years, faculty have been pushed to add various administrative duties to their plates, including retention activities. However, faculty do love their students and they do love seeing them succeed. With the right retention plan, it is very possible to have students, faculty, and the college as a whole benefit with or without retention software.

Start by building the right retention plan. The concept is easy, but difficult to implement. Catch students before they start an academic death spiral and the chance of them completing the term increases dramatically. The more students you catch, the better your persistence to graduation rate will become.

Do not run and purchase the latest and greatest retention software or pay for costly upgrades just yet. The starting point has to begin by gathering key data pieces about your students. Gather four year and six year FTIC retention and graduation trends. Use the data to help identify college specific areas of retention distress.

As an example, the data might point to achievement gaps by minority and low-income students. Use a simple sorting method to develop trend data by ethnic characteristics, including Pell and non-Pell eligible numbers.

Do not buy the retention software just yet!

Examine your institutional policies and practices. Does your withdrawal policy need updating? Large class sizes may help your budget, but hamper your persistence rates. How are students being packaged by financial aid? Are there other awarding strategies available? What type of advising are professional and faculty advisors conducting? Is it time to start training sessions on intrusive advising? How are evening students getting access to tutoring services? What types of student programing opportunities are available? How are students connecting with the rest of the college community? Are there mentoring opportunities?

As you gather your data, identify key stakeholders that could influence your retention strategy. As a community, develop a clear and measurable goal. In our example, we could state, “Reduce the achievement gap for minority and low-income students by 2% each year for the next six years.” One of our strategies would be, “Create intervention programs that support minority and low-income students.” Underlying tactics could vary depending on stakeholders involved. As an example, someone may create a tactic that addresses minority leadership development, intrusive advising, or an evening tutoring program.

As strategies and tactics are being developed, map out the student life cycle. What are the key touch points and gaps? Now the group can determine if retention software will be helpful or not. If so, demo several early alert systems and not just one. Know exactly how you want the software to help you.

O.K., now you are ready

Let the vendors know exactly how you want the software to help your retention plan. Most will customize their presentation to your specific needs. Also let them know up front that you are evaluating several products. This may give you leverage in negotiating the price or bundling additional products.

Early alert software can be a valuable tool and it can even enhance a good retention plan. However, early alert software can never take the place of a good retention plan. A good retention plan is driven by data with strategies and tactics across multiple fronts. The more faculty and staff engage a struggling student, the greater the chances of success.

In the end, it takes a village to increase retention.

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Join Arnold Arredondo at #AACRAO18! Arredondo, a dynamic and engaging presenter, is leading two sessions:

  • "Optimum Success: Strategic Enrollment Management for Small Colleges" and
  • "There is an App for That! Leveraging Social Media in Your Admissions Funnel"