Stagnant enrollment, a shift to performance-based funding and the public's concern about the cost of higher education is pushing colleges to focus on ensuring — and showcasing — strong student outcomes.
Those efforts go beyond improving classroom instruction. They include integrating remedial education with the rest of the curriculum, tailoring support services to the unique needs of online students and adult learners, and offering students tools to manage their mental health.
This report examines how colleges are implementing those strategies and their effect on student success.
A new report shows states are vying to improve performance based on their unique social, educational and economic structures and workforce needs.
By: James Paterson
More than 40 states have attainment goals and the strategic plans to achieve them, but they vary in their ambition, progress so far and prospects for long-term success, according to a report from Ithaka S+R.
Massachusetts and Colorado have the highest attainment rates across all types of postsecondary credentials, while Oregon is the most ambitious with a goal of having 80% of its residents earn at least an associate degree or career-related certificate by 2025.
From 2005 to 2017, the national attainment rate increased by 5.1 percentage points, though the report notes that it's difficult to assess whether the increases are due to a push from the states or external factors.
At the center of this effort is the Lumina Foundation, which has a goal of 60% of American adults holding some form of postsecondary credential by 2025. States have generally followed suit, though not all in the same way.
Ithaka's report examines some of the nuances in how each state has approached those goals. That's expected given each one's unique social, educational and economic structures and workforce needs.
Maryland, for instance, determined that a more educated population will draw businesses seeking a high-skill, high-wage workforce. As such, it focused on increasing the number of bachelor's and associate degrees, rather than certificates.
Meanwhile, New Mexico set targets for K-12 and higher ed, and Rhode Island established "targeted and comprehensive strategies" to close equity gaps across K-12 and postsecondary education.
Other states, including Alabama and Oklahoma, are focusing more directly on workforce training, and Alabama incorporated K-12 and higher ed attainment goals. Tennessee is approaching its goals through a public-private partnership with Nissan and the state chamber of commerce.
Across the board, state attainment goals so far tend to be weighted toward bachelor's degrees. As one caveat, and reflective of the challenge to fulfilling these goals, several states' plans focus on residents in their 20s, 30s and 40s.
Regardless of structure, the report notes, "preliminary evidence suggests that many states may have difficulty meeting their goals." The Education Trust has expressed a similar concern, particularly in connection with minority attainment.
Disparities in who enrolls and completes college have resulted in degree attainment gaps between white adults (47%) and black (30.8%) and Latino (22.6%) adults, the Education Trust report shows. Boosting minority degree attainment will be critical to addressing workforce needs, yet some states have only vague intentions in place to address equity gaps.
It's difficult to assess the effect goal setting has on attainment. However, three states among the half dozen with the lowest degree attainment rates — Mississippi, Louisiana and West Virginia — also are among the eight states that have not established goals. Meanwhile, the five states with the highest degree attainment rates — Massachusetts, Minnesota, Colorado, New Jersey and Virginia — all have goals of at least 60% attainment.
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How colleges are changing remedial education
Fueled by research and the imperative to raise graduation rates, some institutions are revising or altogether replacing developmental classes.
By: James Paterson
Well-intentioned remedial education courses, and the testing that too often imprecisely places students in them, may be doing more harm than good.
That's according to a surge of research and exploratory initiatives that suggest colleges could replace them with a mix of assessment methods and alternative supports to move students ahead while catching them up.
"Developmental education was designed to help students, but it didn't really work," said Christopher Mullin, director of Strong Start to Finish,a college access advocacy group that works with institutions to improve remedial education. "Now there is a lot of energy out there to find a better alternative."
The research is extensive and straightforward.Although about half of first-year students are found to require remedial classes in either math, English or both, the assessments colleges use to make that decision vary widely and don't always reflect students' potential success with college-level coursework.
In one case, researchers found that about one-fourth of students in remedial math and one-third in remedial English were "severely mis-assigned" to the courses using common test-based methods, and that many could have earned at least a B in a regular college course.
What's more, students who take remedial classes are generally less likely to graduate within six years than are their peers who didn't take such courses.
"Traditional approaches to college preparedness are increasingly scrutinized because their outcomes are poor, by and large," said Patrick Partridge, president of WGU Academy,the new remedial education platform offered by Western Governors University, one of the nation's biggest online colleges.
They're also costly. Research puts the total annual expense to students and families at $1.3 billion and to colleges at $7 billion.
Using 'multiple measures'
Although test scores determine most remedial class placements, low-risk students often thrive when other factors — particularly a combination of them — are used instead. Those tend to include GPA, college entrance exams and work experience.
"For some time, we knew the two primary assessments (the ACT's Compass and the College Board's Accuplacer) for placement into remediation were not doing a very good job of predicting how students would do in college courses, and we had been thinking about other information we could use," said Sarah Truelsch, director of policy research at the City University of New York (CUNY).
The system has been a leader in trying new ways to assess, place and boost struggling students as they enter college. "We found that even high school grades were much more closely aligned with success in college," she said.
Starting in the fall of 2019, CUNY will use an algorithm to evaluate students and recommend them to different developmental education options. The algorithm factors in a student's high school grades and scores on the SAT and state Regents Examination to determine whether they would need extra support to succeed in a regular credit-bearing course.
As of December 2018, 19 states used some combination of high school grades, standardized tests, college entrance exam scores, work experience and even apparent grit to place students. And reports from states and systems using such measures indicate they're working.
Public institutions in Arkansas have had success developing alternatives to a lone remedial test score as a placement mechanism, Mullin said. They are working with Strong Start to Finish to find alternatives to placement and supports for students after the state mandated them to do so.
"Placing students more accurately by collecting and examining more student data is one simple step colleges and systems can take," said Mike Leach, director of the Center for Student Success at Arkansas Community Colleges.
At Arkansas Tech University, using a combination of GPA and ACT and Accuplacer scores helped reduce the number of students in remedial classes from 1,032 in 2017 to 794 in 2018. The pass rate of the students who took remedial classes rose from 51% to 55% during that time. Other supports were offered, including academic advising, supplemental instruction and mentorship.
Since January 2018, the California Community Colleges System has been operating under legislation that requires its institutions to use multiple measures for some course placement.
Data on the impact of the new legislation is forthcoming, said Alice Perez, vice chancellor for academic affairs at the California Community Colleges, in an email to Education Dive. However, early findings from the Public Policy Institute of California are hopeful. It found more students are entering and completing transfer-level courses.
"Most students who enter a community college never complete a degree or certificate or transfer to a four-year university," Perez said. "These changes are imperative to increase degree and certificate attainment, workforce outcomes and transfers." She added that changes made through the legislation, state Assembly Bill 705, "represent a significant step forward."
Beyond more carefully deciding which students require remedial classes, states and colleges are looking to incorporate that education into credit-bearing curriculum to help students graduate on time and without extra cost.
In 2015, Tennessee became the first state to drop traditional stand-alone remedial courses, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported, in favor of a corequisite model.Now offered nationwide, this approach places students in a college-level class with the support of a tutor or another class dedicated to reviewing core concepts.
Two years later, Texas passed a bill requiring 75% of students in remedial education as of the 2020-21 academic year to be in corequisite courses.
In the fall of 2018, the California State University System announced it is replacing its traditional remedial classes with two-semester-long versions of credit-bearing courses, taken alongside a support class.
The Los Angeles Times reported in February 2019 that some 7,800 California State University students who would have been required to take remedial math avoided it under the new guidelines and passed a regular math class in the fall of 2018. That's up from just 950 who did so the prior year.
Florida saw positive results, particularly for minority students, after it began allowing some students to forgo remedial classes and changed how such curricula are structured. Enrollment in developmental courses dropped while it increased in introductory-level classes as a result of the change, in 2014, explains the Center for Postsecondary Success. What's more, black and Hispanic students saw a bigger jump in credit attainment than did white students as a result of the change.
"Most students who enter a community college never complete a degree or certificate or transfer to a four-year university. These changes are imperative to increase degree and certificate attainment, workforce outcomes and transfers."
Vice chancellor for academic affairs, California Community Colleges
CUNY takes a different approach. Students flagged as needing support can choose between two preterm intensive programs.
One, CUNY Start, combines tutoring in reading, writing and math, as well as advising and college preparedness training, in a course that runs up to a semester in length before a student formally enrolls. The other, Math Start, is offered as an eight-to-10-week program focused on math. At $75 and $35, respectively, the programs are priced to not cut into student aid.
They also are designed to feed students into CUNY's ASAP program, which itself aims to help students efficiently complete associate degrees.The program has been successful at graduating students, and other institutions have since copied its approach.
Another alternative, Mullin said, is putting students in introductory math courses that align with their majors, such as statistics or quantitative reasoning.
Others, like CUNY, are compressing developmental courses into intensive, typically low-cost packages. For instance, Virginia's community college system integrated its remedial reading and writing courses into a single class, tiered based on ability level.
"We're seeing success in a number of places with a variety of strategies," Mullin said. "Now, the goal is to determine what works best and scale it."
Four strategies to inspire active learning & promote student success at your institution
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It has long been known that successful learning requires more than listening. When active learning occurs, instructors tend to see student engagement soar, exam scores are better, and learners’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills improve — even for the most complex subject matter. In one study of 225 STEM classrooms, researchers found that, on average, examination scores for students exposed to active learning were approximately 6% higher than for those taught via traditional lectures. It was also observed that failure rates in the same student population were about 1.5 times lower.¹ Beyond the empirical performance measures, active learning also has a positive psychological impact. Both students and instructors are more engaged and enthusiastic.
And yet, despite this long-held understanding of the benefits of active learning, traditional postsecondary classroom size and structure is still oriented toward lecture-based instruction and passive learning.²
To address this shortfall, in 2017, EDUCAUSE research identified the Active Learning Classroom (ALC) as the top strategic technology. Together with makerspaces, ALC designs increasingly promote coursework that helps learners discover, invent, solve problems and create knowledge.
With regard to modern classroom design, active learning classrooms typically have the following characteristics:
They typically feature round or curved tables with moveable seating, allowing students to face each other and thus support small-group work.
Tables are often paired with their own whiteboards for brainstorming and diagramming.
Many tables are linked to large LCD displays so students can project their computer screens to the group, and the instructor can choose a table’s work to share with the entire class.
Wireless internet plays an important role in retrieving resources and linking to content management systems.
Depending upon the size of the room, table microphones can be critical, so that every student’s voice can be broadcast across the room.³
Active learning strategies can be employed within the classroom to inspire engagement, debate and discussion. If you are looking to embrace active learning in your postsecondary institution, here are four particular strategies recommended by experts in higher education:
Establish commitment – instead of imposing strict rules and structure on students’ learning, offer students a chance to think critically about their learning and encourage them to devise their own solutions to challenges that they may face along the way.
Disrupt reality – Replace actual reality with an imagined one, presenting students with alternative or futuristic events and happenings.
Introduce imagined solutions – Ask students to use their own experiences and knowledge to explore course concepts.
Incorporate arts-based pedagogy – Integrate visual and theater-based activity to encourage students to think more creatively, abstractly and cooperatively when tackling complex subject matter.²
As demand for mental health services grows, colleges give students new tools
Streamlined counseling centers, de-stress stations and well-being initiatives are helping serve a broader range of student needs.
By: Natalie Schwartz
In 2013,George Mason Universityset its sights on a novel goal in higher education: becoming a model for how colleges can support well-being on campus.
The concept was simple. Rather than just provide students with an education, the public university in Virginia would bake well-being into every aspect of college life to help all members of its community thrive and find personal fulfillment.
So far, George Mason has made strides toward its goal by increasing the number of well-being programs on campus and regularly assessing the engagement levels of faculty and staff, among other initiatives. And the university is hardly alone; colleges across the country are doubling down on their efforts to help students de-stress and get centered.
"Simply showing that somebody has a diploma is not going to be the currency of the future," says Brandon Busteed, a former executive at Gallup Education, in a video from George Mason explaining the initiative. "It's going to be, 'Did that diploma significantly increase my likelihood of having a great job and a great life?' That may be the new metric against which universities are measured."
Such initiatives stem partly from college students' mounting anxiety. Four in 10 incoming college freshmen in the fall of 2016 reported feeling "overwhelmed" by their responsibilities,compared to 28% in 2000, according to research from the Higher Education Research Institute.
And members of Generation Z — or those born since 1997 — are the least likely to report "excellent or very good" mental health, according to an October 2018 report from the American Psychological Association (APA).At the same time, they are more likely to seek help from a mental health professional, with 37% reporting they've done so, compared to 35% of Millennials and 26% of Gen Xers.
It will be critical for colleges to address Gen Z's mental health needs head-on and from the start of their time on campus. One-fourth of Gen Zers say they don't do enough to manage their stress, and nearly three-quarters (73%) indicate they could have benefited from more emotional support in the last 12 months, according to the APA.
College mental health centers, however, are in the midst of a crisis. Several student newspapers have chronicled the severe staffing shortages and long wait timesplaguing the counseling centers at their institutions. And although demand for counseling services has grown, reduced state support and tuition revenue from enrollment declines have sapped many colleges' mental health budgets.
Increased demand has prompted some colleges to look for ways to take some of the pressure off counseling centers through well-being initiatives. Those can include meditation, yoga classes or designated areas where students can go to turn off their electronics, take naps and engage in other activities to de-stress.
At George Mason, many of those efforts are facilitated through the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being, a small office nestled near the center of the university's sprawling campus. Melissa Schreibstein, director of well-being programs for the center, explains that it doesn't usually host programs but rather helps other units and departments across campus embed well-being initiatives into the services and programs they offer.
Over the years, that has taken the form ofa daylong campuswide observation of gratitude, a digital badge students can earn for life skills around resilience, and a living-learning communityfocused on a "holistic college experience," which includes mindfulness, positive psychology and stress management.
"The center knows we can't go at this alone, nor can our mental health professionals go at it alone, nor can our faculty go at it alone — or students themselves," Schreibstein said. "The more complex the challenges are, the more collaboration that's needed."
Wellness across campus
Many colleges are recognizing they need a campuswide effort to adequately address Gen Z and other students' mental health needs. Yet higher ed has a reputation for having pervasive silos that hamper collaboration.
Campus leaders at the University of South Florida ran up against that problem when they tried to respond to rising demand for its mental health services. "We had a lot of resources, but the usage of those resources was low," said Rita DeBate, associate vice president of health and wellness. "The communication between those resources was low to none. There weren't any cross-referrals going on."
To ensure more collaboration, the university took three divisions — Enrollment Planning and Management, Student Affairs and Undergraduate Studies — and rolled them into one cohesive unit called Student Success.
The university also rolled out a three-tier system, called MWell4Success, to better address students' mental health needs, DeBate said.
The first tier requires all incoming students to take a mental health literacy training, which teaches them how to spot the signs of distress both within themselves and their peers, as well as how to approach someone and talk to that person about the resources available on campus.
The university also launched a success and wellness coaching service, which is free for all students and includes a remote Skype option. This system, DeBate explained, is meant for students who don't need counseling or therapy services, freeing up space for more high-risk students, such as those with eating disorders or who may be suicidal.
Doing so can have a big impact on the counseling center, DeBate said, as roughly one-fourth of U of South Florida students were seeking care there for issues that don't require a therapist, such as help with time management and relationship troubles.
At the same time, the college ramped up on-campus offerings that promote well-being and stress reduction. Now, students can take advantage of three relaxation stations filled with nap pods, massage chairs and bean bag chairs, as well as classes for yoga and meditation.
More than 10,000 students have gone to one of the relaxation stations, which were found to have a significant effect on decreasing anxiety. The stations are "more holistic," DeBate said. "(They're) somewhere a student can go and unplug, relax between classes, recharge after an exam."
All three are housed within a wellness center, where success coaches and mental health counselors are available, DeBate explains. That way, students experiencing more serious mental health issues can make a counseling appointment on the spot without the attached stigma of going to the mental health center.
That can help with the university's second tier of wellness services, which focuses on early identification of issues and treatment referrals for at-risk groups of students. The third tier, meanwhile, is reserved for students who need the most intensive mental health care. To increase communication across campus units, the university placed an emphasis on coordinating care across different campus units.
Nationwide push for wellness
U of South Florida and George Mason are just two of several colleges making significant changes to the way they approach mental health on campus.
Vanderbilt University recently launched an initiative to overhaul its mental health offerings. Like other colleges, the Tennessee university saw a need to centralize its suite of services. Vanderbilt did so on several fronts. For one, students can now find a full list of resources on the website for the university's Student Care Network,launched in 2018, from financial aid to spiritual help.
"The more complex the challenges are, the more collaboration that's needed."
Director of well-being programs at George Mason University
To further connect students with resources, Vanderbilt added the Office of Student Care Coordination to provide case management, giving each student a single point of contact for the suite of services needed throughout their time at the university.
Before, no person or group worked with students on an ongoing basis to "connect them to all the right places, help them stay accountable and re-evaluate stressors or challenges that would arise (to determine) what might make sense for the students in terms of resources," said G.L. Black, associate dean for community standards and student support.
The university also tasked the newly formed office with conducting intake appointments. That shift freed up time for the university's counselors, who previously were responsible for those appointments. Under the new system, wait times for appointments shrank from about two weeks to roughly a couple of days, Black said.
"By having some of these additional resources, and integrating mental health and well-being across all offices that are working with and supporting students, you help provide a better, stronger support network for students," Black said. "In turn, (that) helps alleviate some of the burdens on the counseling center."
The University of California, Los Angeles has undertaken similar measures. The university's Healthy Campus Initiative, launched in 2013,aims to bring together different initiatives and activities on campus that promote student well-being, from yoga classes that encourage physical activity to food pantries that help alleviate food insecurity.
Among those resources is the Mindfulness Ambassadors initiative, a three-year-old program that helps students interested in mindfulness spread the practice to others in the campus community, whether through meditation workshops or starting a blog.
"We hope that by giving students tools and skills, ... they can take care of some of their psychological, emotional and mental health needs themselves," said Allyson Pimentel, Mindful UCLA's program director. "It's sort of like fluoridated water. By sharing these tools, strategies and skills, students can (protect) themselves to a certain degree against some of the inevitable difficulties they'll encounter in the course of their college careers."
Meanwhile, some instructors are leading individual efforts to increase well-being on their campuses. Laura Hill, a senior lecturer at the University of Vermont, was looking for ways to incorporate meditation practices into her classes after she attended a yoga teacher training program.
She started by beginning each class with a "mindful minute," or a guided meditation that is meant to help students focus on the material during class time. Their reaction surprised her: "I thought it would come off as out of left field and be weird," she said. "They actually responded quite well."
As she later learned, the 'mindful minute' is a form of contemplative education, which focuses on introspection during academic study. "What I see when I walk into the classroom is that frenetic energy," Hill continued. "We do three deep breaths usually, and then everybody's calmer and more attentive. It's a sea change."
Diversity at the core
For a well-being initiative to be successful, it must encompass diversity and inclusion.
According to the APA report, among Gen Z, students of color report more stress around some issues than do white students. For instance, 41% of Gen Z students of color indicate that personal debt is a "significant source of stress," and 40% say the same about housing instability.That's compared to 30% and 24%, respectively, of white Gen Z students.
At Jefferson Community College, in New York, campus leaders have addressed some of those stressors by bringing a comprehensive suite of services under its Health and Wellness Center. Students can go to the center for a variety of reasons, including mental health services, a food pantry, housing assistance and help with SNAP applications — the latter a benefit college students often leave on the table.
Bringing its physical and mental health supports into one building has helped make the office more approachable, said Katy Troester-Trate, director of the Health and Wellness Center. "Students could be coming in for something as simple as a Band-Aid or an ice pack, or they could be coming in for mental health services," she said. "Their peers wouldn't have any idea why they're going into our building, so it reduces the stigma."
"If students are not mentally OK, they're not going to be able to be successful in the classroom. … If you make it a campuswide priority, everyone wins because everyone is able to focus on things they need to focus on."
Senior advisor, JED Foundation
That can be critical for students of color, as they are twice as likely not to seek mental health services when experiencing anxiety or depression as compared to white students, according to research cited by the JED Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to protect the emotional health of and prevent suicide among teens and young adults.
To create more equity in mental health services on campuses nationwide, the Foundation has collaborated with The Steve Fund to craft 10 recommendations for colleges to follow. They include making the mental health of students of color a campuswide priority; actively recruiting "diverse and culturally competent" staff and faculty members; and providing opportunities to engage students around national events.
Most importantly, commitment to diversity and inclusion in well-being initiatives needs to "come from the top," said Sofia Pertuz, a senior advisor at the JED Foundation.
"If students are not mentally OK, they're not going to be able to be successful in the classroom," Pertuz said. "That's just not possible. … So if you make it a campuswide priority, everyone wins because everyone is able to focus on things they need to focus on."
Making student services accessible for online learners
As institutions enroll more remote adult students, they are realizing advising, career services and other supports must be available around the clock.
By: Wayne D'Orio
With college enrollment mostly flatand the number of adult learners taking online classes expected to increase, it doesn't take a business major to determine that more colleges and universities will be targeting this largely untapped student segment.
Several have already made moves to that effect, including the University of Massachusetts System, which in early 2019 announced plans for a national online college focused on these so-called "nontraditional" students.
But traditionally campus-based institutions can find themselves outpaced as they try to match offerings from online-only schools, especially when it comes to critical services that can help attract and retain students, such as financial aid and academic advising. The act of retrofitting these typically on-campus services to meet the needs of a new subset of students can be awkward, especially compared to the streamlined offerings of online-only institutions.
Colleges leaders looking to distill the problem should consider the hours many of these students keep. Take Sunday evening, which for most colleges is a time when many of their support services are unavailable, waiting to reopen on Monday morning. For a student juggling a job and a family, however, Sunday evening can be a prime time to do schoolwork.
If that student encounters a problem — anything from a question about their financial aid status to confusion over how to post a reply on a class message board — the opportunity to help them could be lost, and it could be days before the student can clear that hurdle.
"With the growth in popularity of online education, there is a great deal of competition for these students," said Sue Ohrablo, a college advising consultant. "Establishing a point of difference in support will help attract new students. A popular phrase that's heard when discussing these strategies is 'concierge-level service.'"
While small and large institutions alike can struggle to set up supports for online students, online-only schools are zooming ahead when it comes to technological achievements.
Artificial intelligence (AI) "is changing the game," said Erika Orris, chief enrollment and marketing officer at the University of Maryland University College(UMUC). Founded in 1947 to help educate veterans,it now serves more than 80,000 students around the world as one of 12 degree-granting institutions in the University System of Maryland.UMUC started offering online classes in the mid-'90s. To reflect its transition to a fully online institution, UMUC plans to change its name to the University of Maryland Global Campus.
For its part, the college already uses AI to run mock interviews for students and plans to roll out an AI-driven advising model. "We're a little late launching ours," Orris added.
UMUC has also streamlined its registration model to allow for two-click sign-up. And the online college promises students a 48-hour turnaround on responses from its writing center and runs a call center that operates 24/7.
"Students don't have a lot of time for administrative tasks," Orris said. "We need to get all of those things out of the way so they can focus on schoolwork."
At Winona State University, which serves fewer than 8,000 undergraduates in Minnesota, progress has come slower. Darcie Anderson Mueller and Amy Meyer, both academic advisers at the school's Warrior Success Center, used a $6,000 grant from the university to create an online component to Winona's advising and career counseling services office.
While Winona is ahead of most campus-based schools today, the pair admit it was hard to push the entire student workflow online. Often, there would be a form that needed a signature, requiring the student to come to campus. Now, the Winona administration not only accepts online forms, but it also offers a web-based counseling service started by Anderson Mueller and Meyer for off-campus students to get face time with staff. As the pair have attended regional and national advising conferences, "We haven't seen other schools that have been this comprehensive," Meyer said.
There's also an unexpected benefit at Winona. While the college has revamped the system to better serve online students, the pair find many campus-based learners use the services during extended hours. In fact, the heaviest usage times are during winter break.
"Establishing a point of difference in support will help attract new students. A popular phrase that's heard when discussing these strategies is 'concierge-level service.'"
College advising consultant
Winona's example of making some progress before finding gaps in its system isn't novel. To combat these oversights, Victoria Brown, assistant provost for eLearning at Florida Atlantic University, helped create a Quality Scorecard for Online Student Support.
The checklist, from the Online Learning Consortium, covers 11 service areas within an institution. They range from expected offerings such as admissions and financial aid to graduate student support and services for those with disabilities. The scorecard is meant to help distance learning administrators ensure an institution is covering all its bases for online students, shesaid.
While combing through various institutions' online offerings, Brown discovered some common areas of weakness. Many institutions still require graduate students to do research or apply for grants on campus. Most colleges realize they need to extend services beyond normal work hours, but many are struggling to find the right mix of support, she said. In some cases, a phone call can fix a problem, but in other areas, students crave the stronger connection that a video chat can help build.
"Online students may feel isolated and disconnected from the institution," Ohrablo said. But they may also be seeking information during their commutes or on a lunch hour, making features like web conferencing impractical. "It is important to provide synchronous and asynchronous opportunities for online students to obtain the assistance they need," she said.
Minding the competition
Primarily campus-based colleges that want to enhance their support for remote students should pay attention to institutions that offer online education at scale.
Western Governors Universityuses a rolling admission system to welcome 6,000 new students each month, said Bob Collins, the institution's vice president of financial aid. The university has 115,000 full-time students, who are enrolled in self-paced competency-based education courses that run on six-month terms that kick off on the first day of each month.
The university also simplified its support services around students' four most common needs, Collins said. Technical assistance is the highest priority for the online-only college and is offered seven days a week with extended hours, though not 24/7. Next in importance is assessment delivery, which addresses students' questions about issues such as taking proctored exams or finding a testing center. That service is also available seven days a week.
"Students don't have a lot of time for administrative tasks. We need to get all of those things out of the way so they can focus on schoolwork."
Chief enrollment and marketing officer, University of Maryland University College
The third and fourth options, financial aid and student services such as academic counseling, are less vital because the related tasks don't stand in the way of students completing their work, Collins said. These services are offered five and six days a week, respectively.
Collins said the university does not have a target ratio of counselors to students, but it does adhere to a simple rule: 70% of the time a phone call will be answered within 30 seconds, and 92% of the questions or problems are addressed within 24 hours.
While there is little research linking online services offered to student success, there is a growing realization of the vital role they can play, Ohrablo said.
"Institutions are realizing the importance of engaging and supporting online students in order to foster student retention and success," she said. "The attrition rates of online students tend to be higher than their campus-based counterparts, and institutions recognize the importance of closing that gap."
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Colleges focus on bringing back stopped-out students
Sagging enrollment and a greater focus on outcomes are pushing colleges to reenroll students instead of replacing them with new recruits.
By: Natalie Schwartz
As one of the largest university systems in the U.S., the City University of New York (CUNY) can be a launching pad into a successful career for the 270,000-plus students it enrolls. Yet the common issue of retention often stands in its way.
Around one-third of full-time, first-time freshmen who started an associate degree program with CUNY in the fall of 2016 left the college within a year. And about 13.5% of full-time, first-time bachelor's students dropped out in the same period.
CUNY's retention rates are better than most, but they still reflect a big issue in higher education. More than 1 million college students drop out each year, a trend that cost colleges $16.5 billion in lost revenue in the 2010-11 academic year alone,according to a report from the Educational Policy Institute.
"It's a population that hasn't been focused on at all," said Anne Kubek, chief operating officer at ReUp Education, a San Francisco-based startup that helps colleges reenroll students who left without completing their degrees. "If you stop out at most universities, that's it. They don't connect with you. They don't follow up with you, you never hear from them again unless they're looking for monies owed."
That may be changing. Several headwinds — including sagging enrollment, diminished state support and a greater focus on student outcomes — are pushing colleges to bring back their stopped-out students instead of focusing solely on replacing them with new recruits.
At CUNY, officials have looked to ReUp Education for help bringing back some of its lost students. Through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the company selected the 25-campus system as the winner of a nationwide competition to receive its services for free. In exchange, the company gets to hone its reenrollment methods on some 20,000 former CUNY students who never finished their degrees.
The results of the test, CUNY officials say, will be used to determine which strategies are best at bringing students across the finish line.
"It was clear to us that the notion of working with a partner ... was going to be both incredibly instructive and helpful from a research design perspective," said Angie Kamath, CUNY's dean for continuing education and workforce development. CUNY's size requires it to be "really scientific and research-oriented in order to try things out that could eventually scale," she added.
Reaching out to stopped-out students
Launched in 2015, ReUp has turned reenrolling students into a science. Using predictive analytics and machine learning, the company can pinpoint the students who are most likely to enroll again and reaches out to them via text messaging, phone calls and email.
ReUp picks who to contact first based on factors such as how long they've been stopped out, how many credits they have left to complete and their support network, though the company eventually works its way through the entire roster of stop-outs.
The company's 18 success coaches talk with interested students to learn why they left, work through issues that could prevent their return and support them once they reenroll. "It's not just good enough for us to bring a student back," Kubek said. "We need to bring back students who have a pathway and clarity around how they're going to get through to graduation."
ReUp gets paid through a revenue-share agreement for each semester a student is enrolled. So far, the company has recovered $25 million in tuition revenue by helping reenroll some 8,000 students across about 20 colleges through the spring 2019 semester. Those results have garnered the backing of investors, who recently poured $6 million into a Series A funding round meant to help ReUp expand its partnerships, EdSurge reported.
“It's not just good enough for us to bring a student back. We need to bring back students who have a pathway and clarity around how they're going to get through to graduation.”
Chief operating officer, ReUp Education
Kubek credits ReUp's early success to its blended use of automated messaging and human support coaches. "We really look to the technology to help us reach out to students at a large scale, engage with them on a regular basis and help manage rosters for coaches so (they) are doing things only humans can do," she said.
Preliminary reenrollment figures are not available, Kamath said.
However, the system has gleaned several findings about its stopped-out students through the effort. For one, Kamath said, students tend to be motivated by two things: wanting to finish what they started and having upward economic mobility.
"Social mobility is what we do," she said. "Being able to make students really change that notion of, 'I flunked out,' or 'I left school,' or 'I dropped out,' ... and flip that to say, 'I want to finish what I started, I want a better economic future, I want social mobility for my family,' is really important."
Meeting students where they are
While the right messages are critical, it's also important to examine why stopped-out students left college in the first place.
InsideTrack, a Portland, Oregon-based company that specializes in student coaching, has made reenrollment a key part of its services. Along with contacting and coaching stopped-out students through reentry, the company also advises colleges on areas they could improve to retain students.
For instance, in 2018,InsideTrack worked with UCLA Extension to reengage about 600 of the continuing education school's former students. About 260 responded to InsideTrack's messaging, and about 120 —or roughly 20%— eventually reenrolled.
Of those who didn't return, about one-third said they didn't have time for school because of work or family responsibilities. Others said they had planned to take time off school all along — a common reason for stopping out that more colleges should be aware of, said Dave Jarrat, senior vice president for strategic engagement and growth at InsideTrack.
"A lot of students at the end of the day just want that nudge. Like, 'OK, I’ve got to do it.' And somebody reaching out, 'This is a sign I've got to finish.'"
Director, The University of New Mexico's Graduation Project
"Most schools do not proactively engage their students around ... needing to take planned time off for a family vacation or a known increase in the intensity of their work," he said. "If they did, they'd be able to help these students prepare for their stop-out so they could go through it with intention and come back well-prepared."
It's also critical to keep in mind the obstacles specific student populations may encounter. For example, Jarrat said several international students ran into issues with their visas while attending UCLA Extension.
At Excelsior College, a private nonprofit online school in New York catering to working adults, officials looked to InsideTrack to figure out why some of their students who are veterans had stopped out. This population faces several unique struggles, as many are working adults and may have doubts over whether they're cut out for college, said Chris Johnson, director of Excelsior's Center for Military and Veteran Education.
"We work with these underserved populations to show them that, 'Yes, of course you could pursue higher education,'" he said.
After contacting roughly 400 to 500 stopped-out veterans, InsideTrack unearthed a surprising reason why some left Excelsior. Throughout the admissions process, Johnson said, the center gives veterans intensive advising about their benefits and enrollment and evaluates whether they're eligible to apply prior credits to a degree.
But once they're handed off to an academic advisor, they generally aren't contacted for one to three weeks. "Many veterans were saying that's too long," Johnson said.
To remedy the issue, Excelsior is forging closer ties between admissions officials and advisors to create a streamlined pathway for veterans — "more of a VIP process," as Johnson calls it.
The steps to reenrollment may present barriers as well. For instance, outdated policies may require students to bring cash to the registrar's office in person or to provide their high school transcripts for admission. "If you're 40 years old and you've been out of school for 20 years, going back and finding your high school transcript is often not easy," Kubek said.
Other common pitfalls are unclear transfer policies or "convoluted" websites, Kubek added. Having a point of contact to guide students through admissions forms, information on the website and the academic advising process can be critical.
"These are the types of things that can be really helpful in breaking down the barriers for students to help them figure out how to come back to school," Kubek said.
Getting creative to reenroll students
Although working with third-party providers focusing solely on reenrollment can be helpful, some institutions are turning toward unorthodox partners or employing new policies to reenroll their stopped-out students.
In 2014, the State University of New York (SUNY) teamed up with a federal loan servicer to send a message to its students who had stopped-out and still had debt. If they returned, SUNY told them, they could avoid defaulting on their student loans.
The campaign proved successful, according to a local media report. About 20% of those who received the messages in the program's first year reenrolled in college, with around 78% of that group doing so at a SUNY campus.
"Most schools do not proactively engage their students around ... needing to take planned time off for a family vacation or a known increase in the intensity of their work. If they did, they’d be able to help these students prepare for their stop-out."
Senior vice president for strategic engagement and growth, InsideTrack
Moreover, the effort helped the system recoup more than $8.7 million in tuition revenue, SUNY officials said during the 2019 American Association of Community Colleges' (AACC) conference.
"We don't have this unlimited pot of high school students," Patricia Thompson, assistant vice chancellor of student financial aid at SUNY, said at the conference. "We need to make sure we don't lose them somewhere in the process."
Other colleges have introduced financial incentives for returned students.
In 2016, for example, Colorado's Pueblo Community College introduced a plan that forgave students up to $1,000 in institutional debt if they reenrolled and finished one semester.More than 300 stopped-out students have since come back, bringing in nearly $350,000 in revenue, Pueblo officials said at the AACC conference.
Likewise, The University of New Mexico offers its reenrolled students up to $750 in tuition assistance each semester for two years through an initiative called The Graduation Project, which targets students who withdrew their senior year.
College officials use email blasts, mailing campaigns and phone calls to reach the students, directing them toward a website where they can fill out an interest form. From there, a student success specialist will guide them through the reenrollment process. In the fall of 2018, the effort helped reenroll roughly 120 students.
Corine Gonzales, director of The Graduation Project, echoed the reasons others gave for students leaving. Usually, life circumstances or financial obligations got in the way of students' studies and they never returned.
"Sometimes you'll get students who are one class away from graduating, but they just didn't finish," Gonzales said. "A lot of students at the end of the day just want that nudge. Like, 'OK, I've got to do it.' And somebody reaching out, 'This is a sign I've got to finish.'"