opinion

Want to Prevent College Dropouts? Look Outside of the Classroom

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Why do students drop out of college?

It’s often not an “academic” problem: most students who fail to graduate are derailed by what happens outside the classroom.

For adult learners, who increasingly make up the majority of students in postsecondary education, the biggest barrier to graduation is balancing work, family and other commitments with school. For traditional students it’s more abstract: they drop out when they lack connection to the school community. When they have trouble fitting in, finding their niches, and connecting socially.

Over the past 15 years, InsideTrack has coached more than 1 million students and maintained data on why many don’t make it to the finish line. In an analysis of traditional freshmen (first-time, full-time students of traditional age) and post-traditional, working-adult students who failed to make it to their second years at a broad range of institutions nationwide, we found that academic issues accounted for just a small portion of total dropouts (see figure, below).

Figure: Primary dropout reasons for traditional and post-traditional students failing to persist into a second year.

When schools understand the student experience more holistically, they can better arm students (and those who support them) with the data and tools they need to make informed decisions and act on them effectively.

Colleges and universities are getting more sophisticated in their approach to holistic advising, coupling technologies with targeted strategies to support students across the college experience, not just in the classroom.

Holistic Advising

A key impediment for many first-time college students is a dearth of clear direction, which results in a lack of commitment to graduation. Arizona State University tackles this problem by using a program called eAdvisor to help students decide on majors and to understand degree requirements. Students using the software can search their interests or characteristics they want in a career, such as “working with people,” and relevant majors will pop up.

The software also collects data on the number of students enrolled in each major and their progress, allowing ASU to better manage course capacity. As a result, the software’s efficiency has saved ASU more than $6.5 million in instructional costs and more than $7 million in advising costs each year. It’s no wonder why universities such as Georgia State University have implemented similar programs.

Implementing Available Tools

Technology can be used in many ways to magnify the impact of student-support professionals and to enable students to better manage their own success, including:

1. Using multichannel communications. Schools can employ a combination of phone calls, emails, web and mobile apps, videos, social media, and even text messaging to meet students where they are. These channels should be integrated to create customized interactions tailored to student needs and to apply the best modality to the job at hand. For example, it doesn’t make sense to have face-to-face meetings with thousands of students just to ask whether they’ve completed their financial-aid forms. Schools can survey them via text message or a mobile app and reserve face time for in-depth discussions of their long-term goals or current challenges. Engaging students through a variety of communication tools makes it easier to reach them in the ways they’re most comfortable and most likely to respond.

2. Offering on-demand support resources. Web and mobile apps with on-demand content such as video tutorials, checklists, document templates, and FAQs can help empower students to complete applications, register for classes, or conduct other tasks on their own time, instead of relying on faculty or advisers to walk them through the steps. One online tutorial video available through a smartphone can explain a process to thousands of students. For example, Northeastern University recently launched its NUGO app, which enables students to conduct financial transactions, contact advisors, and access the learning management system. Similarly, leading education publisher Wiley embedded a career coaching service into several of its WileyPLUS courses that includes a wide range of on-demand career readiness content.

3. Creating dashboards for support professionals. When student-support staff can see at a glance how students are doing, they can quickly determine who needs help with what issues. Having all this information available in one place and accessible with a few keystrokes makes it easier to provide proactive support, spot trends, and advance issues that require administration-level discussions on potential policy changes.

In 2014, Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College, the nation's largest singly accredited community college system, started a student coaching initiative that incorporates all three of these strategies to support its 21st Century Scholars, who are low-income, first-generation students receiving scholarships under a statewide program. The result: Compared with historic rates, the system saw a 24 percent increase in fall-to-fall persistence for these students in the first year of the program.

Higher education’s purpose is to help prepare people for the careers and the lives to which they aspire—and which they can achieve. But to be effective, schools need to help by not only imparting knowledge, but also by ensuring that students have all the resources they need to reach their goals. Combining technology with trained professional support and smart processes is the best way schools can help their students both learn and succeed.

Peter Wheelan is CEO of InsideTrack.

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