Defining IT's Role in Mission-Critical Retention Initiatives

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Key Takeaways

  • Gaps in critical student success and retention initiatives create the opportunity for IT departments to take a leadership role in obtaining the necessary information and technologies for these programs while increasing IT's visibility on campus.
  • IT should facilitate sharing information more widely among retention stakeholders, train functional staff to use data-collection systems in optimal ways, and help transform the institution's culture from data collection to data mining.
  • Six recommendations lay out the strategic leadership steps IT can take to support faculty, staff, and students in campus-wide retention efforts.

Improving student success and increasing retention are important objectives for campuses worldwide. Too often, though, the persons responsible for retention are not clearly identified, and the information and tools needed to measure and improve student success are not available. These gaps provide an opportunity for IT to take a leadership role and contribute directly to the institutional mission while elevating the department's visibility.

Following are six areas where IT should be involved to help ensure a successful retention effort. These insights are gleaned from years of experience working with a variety of higher education institutions throughout the United States.

1. Identify an Active Retention Leader

First explore whether your institution has a retention effort under way. According to the ACT 2010 report "What Works in Student Retention," about 60 percent of community colleges have identified someone to lead retention efforts. That figure increases to about 70 percent for four-year institutions. A significant number of institutions still lack a dedicated resource responsible for retention initiatives. Institutions often say that "improving retention is everyone's job on campus," but this mindset can result in no one taking an active leadership role. If this is the case at your institution, you have an opportunity to raise the issue. And if someone is already leading the effort, you should meet with them and explain the importance of including IT on the leadership team.

You should become familiar with the definitions of terms commonly used when discussing retention on your campus. For example, does "retention" mean the rate at which all students return, or only first-year students returning for their second year? Does "graduation rate" mean the rate of students graduating in four years, five years, or six years?

2. Identify the Data Needed to Succeed

At the heart of retention efforts are reliable data and measurement, and who knows more about data than IT? Also, IT has the unique perspective of knowing the users of data, the data they use, and the ways that technology can collect, aggregate, and display data for easier decision making. IT's role in retention is to help people understand the different types of data and how it is collected and accessed, as well as the tools available to help analyze the collected information and later to support the delivery of services to students.

The first step is to identify the information that is most important for understanding student persistence, learning, and success, and how functional staff will use that data to measure success. Examples of data likely to be collected are leading indicators, which look at early markers such as the grade received on a student's first assignment, and lagging indicators, which look at markers such as time to graduation, that measure the end of a student's engagement.

After the institution identifies the data it needs to collect, IT must assess whether it has the necessary tools. For example, can pertinent data be easily retrieved from the student information system and other databases? And what methods, such as surveys, will be used to collect data?

Next, IT needs to ensure that data can be easily shared and accessed campus-wide by all who support student success, from professors to advisors, financial aid staff, and many others.

Example: Early Indicators

South Texas College, which has five campuses, more than 22,000 students, and more than 1,800 faculty and staff, focuses on early indicators. STC ranks in the top three in the nation for granting degrees to Hispanics. Although most of their students are first-generation college students, the college's retention rate is about 66 percent. The college's use of early alert technology allows them to identify at-risk students and get them needed support as early as possible. "Because of the size of our campus, we are all about early intervention," said Matthew S. Hebbard, director of admissions and registrar at the college. "We have a ton of early intervention strategies, and technology helps us get information into the hands of the right people faster."

3. Transform the Culture from Data Collection to Data Mining

Example: Early Alerts

Community College of Philadelphia has improved use of its data to improve student retention. The college had relied on computer-based testing to capture indicators of retention-loss risk factors, but the information had not been used to its fullest potential. In 2008, the college implemented a new computer-based early alert system (EAS) that not only collects data but also allows administrators, staff, and students to better apply the data to take action. Using EAS quantitative data, administrators now have more detailed student-specific information and can take appropriate measures early on to help at-risk students. By maintaining this information within a relational database system, administrators can direct individual students to appropriate resources. Faculty also receive a far clearer picture of each student's performance.

Data from the first three semesters of EAS utilization at the college showed that approximately 40 percent of students identified at some level of risk at the third week into a 15-week semester decreased their level of risk by mid-semester. For example, a student identified as high risk in the third week would improve to be classified as medium risk.

At some institutions, the retention person views his or her role as more of a historian or statistician than someone actively working toward a performance goal. He or she can readily quote dropout and graduation rates, but has little insight into the drivers behind the figures. Other institutions have a mindset that their school culture and the types of students they enroll dictate the retention rate and that it cannot be improved. Functional users at both of these types of institutions focus on backward-looking lagging indicators. IT needs to help break this mindset by showing functional users the data available to identify warning signals earlier and improve students' chances for success.

Administrators and researchers should be wary of relying on broad national indicators. IT can encourage functional users to look closer at the data to determine what types of students succeed and which don't, helping them begin to identify risk factors specific to their school that affect retention and graduation rates. Then the institution can develop a data-driven understanding of the interventions that work best with various risk profile clusters, which can inform future planning. For example, institutions can identify markers of students who historically do not perform well and create programs to help incoming students with similar risk factors. Graphical displays of point-in-time and trend data in dashboards and scorecards make identifying these indicators easier.

The results of a first-year satisfaction survey, for instance, might show that 65 percent of students are satisfied with advising or tutoring services, but the institution needs to identify the 35 percent who are not satisfied and act to improve their experience. IT can show functional users how to identify specific dissatisfied students, turning a general statistic into an individual who they can help to succeed.

4. Align People and Processes with Technology and Systems

Improving student retention requires repeatable processes and sustainable initiatives. IT can provide the technology to help make processes easier and more efficient, making them more sustainable. For example, the institution might survey students at the end of each semester about their satisfaction with the availability of computer labs. IT can show functional users how to automate the regular distribution of the survey so this task does not get overlooked. Putting repeatable processes in place is not difficult, but someone must make the institution aware of the need for consistency. Institutions will improve their overall retention rate one student at a time, and the needle likely won't move significantly in one year. For this reason, efforts in support of retention need to be ongoing, repeatable, and easily incorporated into everyday work habits and processes.

The retention initiative can start small — by course, by department, by program, or by major — enabling IT and others involved in retention efforts to put systems into place — such as referral programs, intervention tactics, measures of success, reporting mechanisms — for more comprehensive efforts and greater student success.

IT also can help staff understand the alignment between their individual departments and others on campus, and the critical need to share information. A comprehensive, campus-wide student success initiative requires the cooperation of everyone. Identifying at-risk students can begin with class absences, but it shouldn't end there. Taking a comprehensive approach to student success means finding a way to communicate with every campus stakeholder who holds a piece of the puzzle. And by connecting what is happening inside the classroom with what is happening outside of it, institutions can provide not one but multiple safety nets for their students. Student affairs, financial aid, residential life, academic affairs — all of these functions and more play a role in student success.

Example: Align People and Systems

A professor might notice that a student has missed consecutive classes. Across campus, Financial Aid learns that the student's funding has been cut. Together, these two pieces of information indicate that the student is at risk. But if the information is not shared, no one sees the complete picture.

This was the situation at Arkansas State University. According to Darla Fletcher, associate registrar:

"Prior to having a centralized system, no one knew what the other offices were doing in student assistance. There was a lack of communication and overlap on outreach. A football player who was also an Honors student may have been contacted by two or more offices, and the reporting faculty member may have been contacted multiple times as well for follow up. This could be a time drain for all. Faculty would have a difficult time knowing where to go to report the student situation, and they would often feel frustrated if they did not receive steady feedback that something was done to assist the student in trouble."

Since implementing an early alert application, the campus community is working together as a unified force. Students are now contacted by the most appropriate person based on existing relationships. The Early Alert team can chronicle their efforts online, and faculty can log in to review the actions taken by the team and by the student. Communication is shared by all, and the best student outreach is now possible.

A common hurdle to the sharing of information is concern about individuals' privacy. However, considerable data can be shared without violating privacy laws. IT can gain expertise on the legal issues related to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and inform the campus, freeing up the flow of acceptable information.

Another significant initiative that will require the alignment of people, processes, and technologies is providing the support and measurement tools for new services. For example, data might indicate that the campus needs more mental health counseling services. IT might be called upon to provide a mechanism for online counseling. In addition, new software functionality might be needed to monitor students' progress and to assess the program's effectiveness.

5. Train Functional Staff on IT Systems, Solutions, and Tools

At times, staff are not aware of existing tools and capabilities for collecting and analyzing data and sharing information. IT can educate functional departments about the tools available to them for use in retention efforts or just to make other processes more efficient so that they have more time to focus on helping students succeed. In addition to making sure that new hires, and employees who move to different positions, are trained, IT needs to establish a program for ongoing training to help staff leverage the tools they have at hand.

In my experience, many administrative leaders are not facile with the institution's student information system (SIS). Typically, they relegate tasks that involve working with data to their staff. As a result, administrators often do not know what information is available or how to retrieve it. IT should spend time training executives on their SIS, or at least to understand the valuable data available within it.

Often, IT is too busy getting new systems and patches up and running to set aside time for training. But training is critical. If IT does not have the bandwidth to provide ongoing training and refresher courses, they should approach the administration for additional funds to support this effort. Also, self-service and self-paced training tools are available. Ultimately, training will pay off not only in achieving a greater return on the technology tools in which the institution has already invested but also in improved retention efforts. IT will also benefit because enabling users to access data themselves reduces the number of requests made to IT. This creates efficiencies for the user and frees up IT to focus on more critical and proactive tasks.

6. Bring Expertise to Software Selection

Lastly, when considering purchasing new software to support retention efforts, IT alone has the expertise to help the institution understand the different technologies and how they integrate with the existing mission-critical SIS and other databases. Because student data comes from campus-wide systems, and because almost every functional office will be involved in retention efforts, the software will impact a broad array of people. If IT has been involved in the retention effort since the beginning, IT can better guide the institution in choosing a solution that aligns with this critical institutional goal, while taking advantage of the investment already made in other technologies. IT can demonstrate their role in selecting a product that works toward an institutional performance goal, rather than limiting their responsibilities to making a product work.

Final Thoughts

For an example of IT integration throughout a college's retention efforts, see the case study on Metropolitan Community College.

I hope this article has given you a better understanding of the leadership role that IT should play in an institution's retention efforts. Improving retention truly is everyone's job. And it's also an opportunity for IT to demonstrate its contribution to mission-critical performance goals.