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Postsecondary Learning

​Without Addressing Basic Needs, Student Success Strategies Fall Short

By Sydney Johnson     Feb 23, 2018

College advisors and education leaders gathered in Nashville, Tenn., this week to discuss how to get more nontraditional students—such as full- and part-time workers, parents and other underrepresented groups—to and through college.

But even in presentations about the latest advising technologies, a through-line for the event was how to frame student success initiatives beyond surface-level enrollment and retention metrics.

The organization behind the event was Achieving the Dream, a nonprofit that has provided grant support to colleges working to implement student success technologies like degree planning systems, early-alerts and predictive analytics. At the conference, the organization stressed another strategic focus: equity. According to CEO Karen Stout, Achieving the Dream is working to forward the conversation around student success by “redefining the destination of our work beyond [college] completion.”

“Successful redesigns address the systemic structural barriers for students,” Strout said at a plenary session on Thursday. “Barriers that prevent them from getting on a path or staying on a path; barriers that continue to hold back our collective cable to close the equity gaps on campus.”

Closing the Gaps

So what do improved student success initiatives look like? According to Hoori Kalamkarian, a researcher at the Community College Research Center who also spoke Thursday, technology-assisted advising could play a role—provided that any data collected doesn’t algorithmically reinforce biases.

She added that to go beyond retention metrics, insights should be shared beyond the advisor’s office to help inform institutions about their own achievements gaps. (For instance, which groups of students are getting flagged more, or which students receive more kudos.)

Others at the conference stressed that successful initiatives must also put emphasis on the student needs that data alone cannot solve, like housing and food insecurity.

“Do they have food, do they have transportation?” asked H. Jeffrey Rafn, president of Northeast Wisconsin Technical College. “When you begin to think about that, everyone of of those activities can impact if a student is successful.”

Later, during an afternoon session, Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of higher education policy at Temple University, shared findings from a 2017 study that found more than half of the 33,000 students surveyed were housing insecure, while 56 percent face food insecurity and 14 percent are homeless.

“We don’t know there is a problem until we can quantify a problem. This is especially true for the policy-makers,” she said. “No matter how we measure it, these numbers are not acceptable. These are getting in the way of our students’ success.”

Even in places like Seattle where the economy is booming and private companies have partnered with institutions to create their own job pipelines, students are still struggling with these issues.

At the later session, an attendee from Bellevue College in Washington explained that local students are being forced out of the area due to the effects of gentrification. As massive tech companies like Microsoft increase their footprint in the region, housing prices have soared and members of the community—including students, faculty and other staff members—are struggling to afford to stay at the institution.

Experts like Goldrick-Rab, who specializes in college affordability and access issues, have suggestions on what could be done to help more students succeed—starting with official policies to make sure they have enough food to get through the day.

“This is why we have a national school lunch program [in K-12]. Some kids come to school to eat,” Goldrick-Rab said. “So what’s the policy solution? Expand the school lunch program to community colleges.”

Technology Reaches Out

As for the tools themselves, Goldrick-Rab told EdSurge she believes technology can and should also be used to help address food and housing insecurity issues.

“I’d like to see predictive analytics focused more on using data on basic needs security to target interventions,” she said.

Examples of what that might look like already exist at some campuses. She pointed to Amarillo College in Texas, which uses its predictive software to identify and reach out to students who might benefit from services like the college’s Advocacy and Resource Center, which oversees a clothing center, food pantry and social services.

Kalamkarian, who researches how colleges and universities implement student success tools, said she sees more colleges today thinking about how to use technology like predictive analytics in a way that better supports disadvantaged students.

Still, Goldrick-Rab said that a major barrier to effectively using advising technologies and interventions is when students still struggle to meet basic needs.

“Students who don’t have a place to sleep or enough to eat will have trouble having access to a computer or engaging with technological innovations,” she said in an email.

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