Published on 2015/12/09

Retaining A Diverse Student Population with Creative Technology Use

The EvoLLLution | Retaining A Diverse Student Population with Creative Technology Use
The diversity of students enrolled at community colleges is enormous, and it’s critical for college leaders to maximize the use of technology to ensure that each student receives the personalized attention they need to stay enrolled and succeed.

As colleges and universities push to become more student-centered, in an age where students have wide-ranging choice when it comes to choosing their postsecondary institution, technology is playing a growing role. At two-year colleges especially, where the open-enrollment mission leads to a student population that is incredibly diverse—with broad interests and priorities—supporting institutional management with data and technology is critical. In this interview, Jennifer Spielvogel shares some insights on the unique challenges of serving such a diverse set of students and reflects on a few of the ways innovative uses of technology are helping them to overcome those issues.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the most significant challenges two-year colleges face when it comes to managing enrollment and attracting students?

Jennifer Spielvogel (JS): One of the biggest challenges is that we serve students at both ends of the academic spectrum: those who are placed into developmental education programs and those who come in as honors students. Both groups of students require a certain amount of enrollment management; the developmental education students need support getting through those developmental courses while we need to retain the honors students.

For those high-quality, honors students, they typically come to us for a first semester—or first year in some cases—and then leave, transferring to another institution. If you want to fortify the freshman class, we need to retain our honors students. Attracting those high-quality students presents another major challenge because recruitment at the high school level isn’t what it used to be.

Additionally, for an institution like ours where the average age is somewhere between 27 and 29, trying to get adult students that need to come back to finish their associate’s degree is another challenge. In our county, we have a lot of people with some college but no degree—or no college at all—but it’s a challenge to find and recruit those students. When it comes to this adult population, our competition is the decision not to go to college at all. It’s an interesting situation. Students either come here, or they don’t enroll anywhere.

That’s for attracting adults. For certain other populations of students, they clearly have their choice of institutions. For those college-ready students to choose us is definitely a goal. So many of our students place into developmental courses, so it’s a goal for us to be able to recruit college-ready students from Cleveland schools, and have us be a top choice for those students when they graduate.

Evo: How challenging is it to define messaging that resonates with such a diverse group of students with such a range of goals, aspirations and priorities?

JS: Everybody in Cuyahoga county knows who we are, so our advertising really has to continue to hit the masses and communicate critical information. We have changed our messaging a little bit over time to show students in a job instead of just in a classroom. Our tagline for a long time has been, “Where futures begin,” but we needed to show what that future could be.

Our marketing is always about Tri-C in general, because we have workforce programs and non-credit programs and lots of transferring students, so the message has to be “We’re here for you.” But recruiting and enrolling high-quality students has been a challenge for us and it’s where we’re putting our marketing money.

We’re actually getting ready to do some focus groups with our honors students who are on full-ride scholarships to understand why they decided to come to Tri-C and learn the context around their decision. For example, we want to know if they took any ribbing from their university-bound friends when they decided to enroll here, where their friends with similar grades decided to go and who helped to influence their decision to enroll.

Evo: What are the most significant challenges to student persistence facing two-year colleges?

JS: One of the statistics I ran a few years ago, which is truly fascinating to me, found that students who took developmental education in the fall as new students but didn’t pass typically did not re-enroll in spring. That’s a huge fall off. If you figure we have 3,000 new students, most of them are going to be required to take a developmental education course, half of them aren’t going to pass it, and 80 percent of those non-passing students won’t come back. You could lose significant numbers of students after just one semester, based on this.

I often say that the students who are with us are the students who survived their first two semesters. The most significant challenge for developmental students is to get them to pass the first course and return.

For the honors students, it’s getting them to understand the value of an associate’s degree, so they don’t transfer prior to earning that credential.

Both groups have issues related to persistence, but they vary significantly. For developmental students, it’s because they don’t pass muster right away and need to keep trying. For the honors students, it’s because they easily succeed and want to transfer.

Evo: How does Tri-C approach dual-enrollment opportunities for high school students, and what does it take to convince students upon graduation to enroll at Tri-C to progress toward an associate’s degree?

JS: How to get those dual-enrollment students to enroll at Tri-C and earn an associates degree is the burning question for us right now.

We have 3,000 high school students registered this semester. It’s actually a requirement in Ohio to have pathways in place for high school students to be able to earn college credits and get onto a pathway toward an associate’s degree.

We need to figure out how to get those students to stay here after earning those credits. Psychologically, it’s pretty cool for a high school student to qualify to pursue college-level credit. But for a high-achieving high school graduate, enrolling at a community college doesn’t have that same reputation. We need to break through that.

Tri-C has a wonderful reputation in this area. It’s the largest community college in the state. We are not dealing with reputational issues where people think of us as an extension of high school, for example. But convincing those totally college-ready students to come to Tri-C is a challenge, even though some of the major universities in Ohio have a branch campus system—where they have regional campuses where students can start their degree program before transferring—that mirrors the two-year college model. It’s telling that no universities have branch campuses in Cleveland, though. If students in Cleveland are not coming for us for this approach to education, they’re not enrolling.

We do have a number of articulation agreements in place with Cleveland State University, which is across the street from one of our campuses, and we encourage students to take classes at both institutions to get the exact set of courses they’re looking for. We recently looked at the articulation agreements to make sure the four-year institution is encouraging students to finish their associate’s degree before they push to transfer through the articulation path.

Evo: How is Tri-C using systems and software to support better enrollment management and retention for its diverse population of students?

JS: We have a really robust IT and computer infrastructure in place for our students, our faculty and our staff. Our purchases are made with student success in mind. For example, we have an early alert system in place that allows faculty members to identify students who may struggle within the first two to three weeks of a course and then follow up on that information with direct interventions.

We also have a module in place that allows students to set a specific degree plan when they have their first meeting with a counselor and it provides them a pathway toward a credential throughout their academic career. It tracks what they have, what they need and what courses are coming up that could move them toward their goal. We have yet to truly leverage this tool’s ability and robustness, but we’re on track.

We do lot of self-service data requests and make a series of reports available to other departments to make key information available to those who want and need it. It puts course information, enrollment information and all kinds of other data into the hands of those who can really impact and influence the outcomes.

We use technology to be able to collect, analyze and use data that we weren’t evening thinking about 10 years ago, and we’re putting it into the hands of users, which is a major shift.

We have a culture now at Tri-C based around data-driven decision making. People don’t make plans unless they have the data to support them.

Evo: Reflecting on a few processes you currently have in place, how would you like to see those processes scaled to accelerate some of these transformations?

JS: We’re well on our way to putting data into the hands of students themselves. I would like to eventually be able to proactively and automatically tell students what courses they need to be considering for their next term and outlining how they fit into their degree plans. I want to be able to anticipate students’ needs and communicate directly to them.

We also want to be using technology to plan the schedule as well. This would allow us to be able to predict how many sections of each course we need based off degree plans and would allow all 30,000 students have access to and take the courses they need to progress toward their degree.

Communication plans facilitated by technology are critical. We now have communication plans in place that ensure the institution regularly prepares lists of students for the call center to connect with to let them know critical information. Updating students about missed opportunities to register for degree-relevant courses, keeping them posted on future opportunities, this is something that we need to scale to ensure we can continue to communicate with students effectively.

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Key Takeaways

  • For two-year colleges, communication systems that allow them to deliver personalized messages at scale are critical to serving the highly diverse population of learners enrolled.
  • Tools that facilitate data self-service for administrators, staff and faculty are also critical as they put vital information into the hands of individuals who can operationalize it to transform the institution.

Readers Comments

Donna Allen 2015/12/09 at 9:32 am

That really is challenge unique to the two-year college system. For half the students they need to sell the value of the institution that the student has already chosen. They have to sell themselves twice instead of just the once, in addition to addressing the needs of the less college-ready population.

Mary Cooper 2015/12/09 at 10:21 am

I think maybe it’s not quite so different as we think, and four-year colleges could learn a thing or two about constantly selling ourselves and proving to our students are every step of the way the we are the best choice to serve their needs and that we’re committed to getting them where they want to go. It’s a good lesson in not resting on our laurels.

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