Focusing on Retention in an Open-Access Environment: How Technology Can Pave the WayKim Wagner | Executive Director of Student Financial Services and Auxiliary Enterprises at Elgin Community College
At higher education institutions across the United States, leaders are looking for ways to improve student persistence and success rates. But how do you ensure students are successful when many come in without college-ready skills? This is the challenge facing leaders at community colleges, who find themselves on the front lines of the completion initiative but maintain their open-access mission. In this interview, Kim Wagner reflects on a few of the ways two year institutions can leverage technology to support those efforts and shares her thoughts on the most significant challenges standing in their way.
EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the most common reasons that students stop or drop out of their academic programs?
Kim Wagner (KW): Some of the most common reasons for students to stop or drop out are financial. Students are juggling part-time employment while enrolled, which is a difficult balance to strike. They’re trying to find time to deal with family issues, meet with their instructors, go to tutoring if they need to— all of those elements that play into academic success. Balancing all of that really is a struggle for most students.
At ECC, about 71 percent of our students are part-time and we see the challenges these students face regularly. We have a number of our students coming into to the office wondering how much financial aid is available to them or looking for on-campus employment so that they can still make an income while having fewer hours off-campus.
There are a few other reasons that students will drop out. A lot of the time, they don’t know what program of study to pursue or what their end goal is. These students came to our campus wanting to explore, or because somebody told them they should sign up for a particular class, but they come and don’t know what a college education requires. They then have a bad experience—often in a math or English course—and because of that one bad experience they say, “College isn’t for me.”
Evo: How are colleges leveraging technology tools to help avoid or overcome these obstacles to retention?
KW: It’s one of my personal goals to learn more about what kinds of IT solutions are out there for colleges.
At ECC, we have over 10,000 students every term and we cannot keep track of every single student and their needs, or predict whether they’re going to stop out or persist, unless we have technology to assist us. We currently have an early-alert system in place to help privately identify students who are, or may begin, struggling. Then we have a department on our campus that reviews all of those alerts from our faculty. They then immediately reach out to the student through emails and phone calls to get them into the office. On top of this predictive technology, we have a few other tools in place that help to personalize the experience. We’re using a student portal that allows students to register, build their schedules and process payments. We have communications systems that ensure messages are personalized and contextual. We have a mobile app, which allows students to get critical information right on their phones. These all map to what they’re used to from the consumer world. We’re also starting to use a tool that helps us to effectively monitor and track student payments and outstanding balances. It shares this information with other parts of campus and will notify staff when a student is behind. So, for example, an academic advisor can tell a returning student who is behind on their payments to catch up prior to registering for the next term.
One system that I’ve been admiring for a while is the one they have in place at Georgia State University. That kind of information and data is so powerful for academic advisors, especially when they’re sitting down with students as they’re filling out their schedules and guiding them through their academic journey.
Evo: What kinds of unique challenges do community colleges face when it comes to purchasing and leveraging technology that four-year universities don’t?
KW: There are a few specific challenges community colleges face when it comes to acquiring and leveraging technology.
A unique challenge we have is being a college in the state of Illinois. We do not have a budget passed for our current fiscal year nor do we see a probability of a budget for the next fiscal year, so of course revenue is a major concern. We’re not sure that our institutional budget will allow us to afford technologies. A predictive modeling system like the one Georgia State has, for example, is unfeasible for us at this time.
Evo: Looking to the future, what role do you hope to see technology play in supporting the retention and success of students at two-year colleges?
KW: Across the nation, community colleges are in the spotlight. There’s the national agenda for completion, and two-year colleges are viewed as a critical place for students to come and get that credential to make them more employable.
Technology is moving very quickly and we’re seeing it more and more as consumers. Students understand and value technology. They accept it and use it in their day to day lives. We see that at the grocery store with self-checkout and in the banks with ATMs. Students expect us to provide them with that same service.
Evo: How does a commitment to retention play into the role of the community colleg as open-access institution?
KW: Maintaining open access to the community college is very important. That open-access mission is a part of our identity, and to an extent we’re just like the Little Engine That Could. We were put into place for a very distinct reason: that we become an extension and point of access for the community, hence our name. The community college was designed to be a place where students could come to earn a certificate or degree and be gainfully employed.
We’re the makers of the middle class and supporting retention is a major part of that. The “access” part is getting them through the door, through our orientation, and helping them to get motivated to become a community college student. “Retention” is what comes after that, and we have to think and live and breathe it every single day. We’re trying to keep better track of our students and we’re trying to keep them on-track with our early-alert system. We’re trying to make our developmental education programs as concise as possible so that we don’t have students taking a year half-full of non-credit courses just to get to the college level. Those new initiatives are examples of the innovation that we’re doing on campus all the time. That’s how we get people to the point where they can walk across the stage and get their degree or certificate.
To me, it’s critical to strike a balance between access and retention. However, retention is what we need to be doing day in and day out.