Published on 2017/03/01

Incentivizing Summer Enrollments to Drive Retention and Completion

The EvoLLLution | Incentivizing Summer Enrollments to Drive Retention and Completion
Incentivizing summer term enrollments could be the key to driving more part-time students into full-time enrollment, improving their chances at completion by helping them to build momentum toward their credential without stopping out.

The difference in completion rates between full-time and part-time students, both at the two-year and four-year levels are staggering. It makes sense, of course, that a student who is enrolled full-time is more likely to earn a credential, but the challenges facing those part-time students must be addressed if the 60-percent attainment goal is to be achieved. In response, Alamo Colleges District launched the Fast Completion Incentive Plan, which promises students who complete 18 credit hours over their fall and spring semesters three free credit hours in summer term. For students who earn 24 credit hours over the year, the college will offer them six free summer credits. In this interview, Jo-Carol Fabianke reflects on the factors that led to the launch of this aggressive program to incentivize summer enrollments and discusses some of the roadblocks and considerations that must be made to make it a success.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why did you and your team decide to focus on growing summer term enrollments?

Jo-Carol Fabianke (JCF): What we were really focusing on was trying to get students to move more towards full-time enrollment. We have had a real focus here for the last couple of years on completion rates and we’ve done really well. In 2016, we awarded over 12,000 credentials—degrees and certificates—which was a significant increase over our previous years. But as we began to delve further into that graduation rate and persistence data, the difference between full- and part-time enrolled students is really heartbreaking.

If we look at our persistence rates, we found we had about 66 percent retention for full-time students and only 51 percent for part-time students. Additionally, our four-year graduation rates for full-time students was 20 percent, but only 12 percent for part-time students. When you consider the fact that 81 percent of our students are part time, it was critical for us to figure out how to take those students from part time to full time.

While we were having discussions about how we could encourage students to take more hours, we began working with Davis Jenkins out of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teacher College, on the concept of “momentum,” which goes beyond just trying to get students to enroll full-time. We know from research if students stay enrolled, they’re more likely to continue to persist than if they stop out. Creating access to courses offered during the summertime makes a significant difference in this regard.  We kept talking about what might be some incentives to get students to take more hours and to progress through their programs more quickly, and we landed on this program.

Our CFO did a detailed analysis and believes that we could make this work because, if students take more hours and stay enrolled, we would more than make up for what we’re giving away in the summer.

Of course we also—like most everybody else—maintain that summer schedule. Traditionally, we thought that most summer students were transient students, students who come home for the summer and take a couple of classes to get ahead. But as we begin to really look into the students who were enrolling in our summer offerings we realized that was not necessarily the case.

We also knew that students didn’t have any financial aid to support their summer enrollments because they would usually use it up during the Fall and Winter terms.

So we put together this plan to incentivize more summer term enrollments and we’ll see how it’s going to work. We’re planning to roll it out this summer, and that plan was approved in fall 2016 by our Board of Trustees who strongly support this initiative. When we presented this to them, there was some concern over whether our students could reasonably take on more hours, but we believe that’s not the case. What’s more, we knew we really wouldn’t know unless we tried.

Evo: How do you consolidate the need to drive more students towards-full time enrollment when so many students are working to support families?

JCF: A lot of the research—done particularly by Davis Jenkins with CCRC—says that if students take more course hours, they’re going to be just as (or more) successful because of the momentum they build. Students often think they can’t take more hours, but that’s often not the case. For example, if they enroll full time they would have access to more financial aid, which could mean that they don’t have to work as much. We’re also trying to do more things like accelerate developmental education and build more pathways to get students into credit-bearing offerings more quickly.

We really want students to know that they can see their goal and we want to make sure they can see the sequence of classes they need to take to achieve it. We’re thinking if we can have them begin with the end in mind, and then provide really good advising, that we may be able to support more students in achieving their goals.

In the last two years, we have increased the number of advisors on staff, so all students have an assigned advisor and we’re reaching out to our students on a regular basis. We believe that with the advising—and with being able to show students exactly what they can take and how it will count toward their goal—we can get their momentum going and ensure that they’ll be successful more quickly.

Evo: What were the steps you had to take to get the new program into place?

JCF: The first step we took to getting this incentive program launched was to find out if we could afford it. As I said, our CFO did an analysis that found if a certain percentage of students take advantage of this incentive, our contact hours each term would increase, which would grow our tuition revenue, which would generate more reimbursement funding from the state. Ultimately, the model showed how we could afford to offer this. We also realized that in the summer many of our classes do not run at maximum capacity, so we can put more students in the summer classes we already have without increasing our cost.

Evo: For other college leaders looking to introduce similar incentive programs, what roadblocks do you think they can (or should) expect to face through the design and implementation process?

JCF: The biggest question other college leaders ask us every time we mentioned this incentive programs is, “How are you going to afford it?” That’s the first thing they want to know, what the costs are, how it will change the cost of education and whether we can absorb the extra costs. Our CFO believes that we can come out with this program not having increased our costs significantly. So the first roadblock institutional leaders need to overcome is the cost issue.

Another roadblock is changing our behaviour around how we schedule classes. We’ve now spent a good amount of time talking with faculty across our colleges who may not be used to offering summer classes. We’ve also had to develop sequence advising guides for every award that we offer, building in the summer session as well. It has led to very interesting conversations because we’re moving a lot of people out of their comfort zones, but it makes sense to make this program more accessible. For example, if a prospective student wanted to take a workforce course in the summer but it wasn’t available, it might be difficult to get them to come back months later in the fall to take that same offering. It’s a matter of changing our mindset, and that requires a lot of discussions. We also don’t know how many students are going to take advantage of this incentive program during this first summer. We don’t know if we will have enough classes scheduled. We also need to make sure we have enough faculty who want to teach during the summer. All of these things need to move together, which is a little bit of a challenge.

Finally, the third challenge is changing the students’ expectations and patterns of behavior. It might take us a year or so to do that. A lot of students plan to take the summers off because there’s no culture of summer enrollments. We’re already marketing the incentive program and the value of summer incentives, but still it’s the experience that makes a difference for students. That behavior change is what really builds momentum over the long haul. That’s why we want to start this summer, even though we haven’t had a huge amount of time to prepare.  We began advertising it as we began spring enrollment, because it would allow students to get in their minds that they’ve got to take enough courses this spring to get to the minimum totals of 18 or 24 to be admitted into the incentive program.

My guess is this summer will probably not see a large cohort of summer students, but that’s okay because we’re going to learn from it. We’ve also, of course, got to take the time to figure out the mechanics of how to make the system work to support this approach to registration and enrollment. We have to figure out who’s eligible for free tuition, based on their spring results, and then notify them that if they’ve enrolled in summer courses they may or may not have to pay. Those business processes behind the scenes are things we still need to work out, and frankly we probably won’t be able to figure them out until we start to do them. We keep saying to everybody that we’re going to have to be a little bit flexible here as we figure this out. We’re going to have to figure out what kind of demand we have and then find ways to make it work. The devil is always in the details.

Evo: What do you hope will be the lasting outcome of this incentive initiative?

JCF: I hope that we will have more students stay with us, persist and complete their goal, whether it’s a certificate or a degree. We have significantly increased our completions already, but we feel like all the efforts have been targeted at low-hanging fruit. Now we’re tackling a more complex issue.

Our goal, of course, is to have students come in that are seeking a certificate or degree and help them to actually get through it. Our long-term hope is to help more students realize that goal, by seeing it from the start, recognize when they’re making progress and build momentum to stay until they’re done.

We found out that about a third of our students leave us within three years, even though they’re in good academic standing, but don’t transfer to any public institution, which means we can’t find them or track their progress. That’s a huge number of students and we want to try to help them stay the course.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Key Takeaways

  • By incentivizing summer term enrollments, it’s possible to help students who otherwise would only classify as part-time to enroll full-time and, thus, improve their chances at completion.
  • One of the biggest challenges behind this incentive program succeeding is creating a culture of summer term enrollments both among faculty and staff and among students.
  • The business processes that drive an incentive program like this—ensuring grading turnarounds and supporting accurate and timely outreach to relevant students—are also challenging to outline.
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