Stagnant enrollment, a shift to performance-based funding and the public's concern about the cost of higher education was pushing colleges to focus on ensuring — and showcasing — strong student outcomes before the coronavirus hit.
The pandemic is adding a twist, requiring college and university leaders to consider how to ensure students are meeting learning outcomes as instruction moves off campus, where students have inconsistent access to the internet and computers and could be dealing directly with the health and economic impacts of the virus.
It also heightens the imperative around existing student success efforts, though the situation makes them more challenging to execute. They include integrating remedial education with the rest of the curriculum, tailoring support services to the unique needs of online students and adult learners, and offering students tools to manage their mental health.
This report examines how colleges are implementing those strategies and their effect on student success. As colleges continue to experience the effects of the pandemic, we'll be looking at how these areas are affected.
As colleges switch to pass/fail amid coronavirus, what's the best approach?
There's no one way to make the change, but the effects will stick with students beyond the current semester.
By: Natalie Schwartz
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was one of the first major universities to make the call. In light of the coronavirus pandemic upheaving the end of the academic year, MIT officials told students they were doing away with letter grades this semester and switching to the university's version of a pass/fail grading system.
Over the next few days, a wave of institutions followed in temporarily expanding their pass/fail policies. They've included elite schools such as Dukeand Georgetown universities and public flagships like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
College officials say it's one way to make a chaotic semester a little easier on students, who may be dealing with sickness themselves or in their family, as well as coping with the economic fallout from the crisis. Campus-based students also didn't sign up for an online semester and may not do well with virtual classes, they note.
"This situation was not of (students') making," Robert Blouin, executive vice chancellor and provost at UNC-Chapel Hill, said in an interview with Higher Ed Dive. "We basically took a good faith effort here to try to make sure that all of our students, particularly our undergraduate students, would have a chance to be treated fairly."
Yet there isn't one way to switch to pass/fail. While some colleges have mandated every class transition, others are letting students decide if they want to forgo letter grades this semester. Generally, the classes still count toward students' credit requirements.
Although the changes are temporary, college officials agree the policies could have effects for students that extend beyond the semester, including how they stack up to their peers competing for the same jobs and whether they can apply for or get accepted to graduate school.
A weight off students' shoulders
Duke University, in North Carolina, announced it was making its version of a pass/fail grading system the default option for undergraduate classes, though students could opt into receiving a letter grade.
Gary Bennett, the university's vice provost for undergraduate education, said the pass/fail system will help students focus on adapting to remote learning. Like scores of other colleges, Duke moved its classes online for the rest of the spring semester to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
"We believe strongly that this moment is one that is just unprecedented in history," Bennett said, adding that the university wanted to "mitigate some of (students') anxieties."
However, Duke officials recognized that some students are counting on letter grades to lift their GPAs or for their applications to graduate programs. Medical schools, for example, often require applicants submit letter grades for certain classes.
Officials caution students to consider carefully what option they choose. But David Perry, a history adviser at the University of Minnesotawho has advocated for all institutions to change to pass/fail policies for the spring semester, said the onus is on graduate schools to tell students they won't penalize those who took the option during the pandemic.
The University of California, Berkeley, approved a similar policy, making its version of pass/fail the default option for students during the spring semester, though instructors must keep track of letter grades. Students will have until May to opt for letter grades instead.
The change is a "weight off of our shoulders," said Matthew Mercier, a junior economics and political science major at the university, in an interview with Higher Ed Dive. He had urged the university's administration to switch to a pass/fail system in a petition that garnered more than 7,600 signatures.
Some colleges, including MIT, said they will note on students' transcripts that the coronavirus significantly disrupted the semester.
MIT also told students it didn't believe the use of alternative grades would hurt their job prospects. Still, people signed a petition urging the university to make its policy flexible, contending that some students may have to alter their career plans or retake a semester as a result of the change.
An unprecedented semester
UNC-Chapel Hill is taking another approach. It is keeping letter grades as the default option but giving undergraduates until August to change some or all of their classes to pass/fail.
It is also giving students who don't complete their work by the end of the semester due to the pandemic three months from the end of the term to wrap up their classes.
Blouin told Higher Ed Dive that the administration's priority is to "hold our students harmless for all that has been transpiring across the country (and) across the state."
The school chose an optional policy because it didn't want to harm students who planned on applying to graduate schools or who needed to pull their grades up to keep attending the university, he explained.
However, some observers note that making the policies optional could stigmatize students who choose a pass/fail grade while favoring those who have better internet access or more familiarity with online learning.
"From a set of moral principles, I like the idea of making everything mandatory," Perry said. "It seems to me to be the most equitable process, but I understand that there are bureaucratic complexities that are just enormous."
"Am I going to be put on a stay-at-home order or locked down in the next 48 hours? But also, I have a lab report due at 3 p.m. Like, what's really going to take more cognitive capacity?"
Student, UNC-Chapel Hill
Kristen Hines, a junior chemistry and psychology major at UNC-Chapel Hill, urged the school to expand its pass/fail policy for the semester in a petition that drew more than 9,000 signatures.
Hines, who lives outside of Seattle — one of the areas in the U.S. hit hardest by the virus — said students may not learn as well online and could be balancing multiple concerns.
"Am I going to be put on a stay-at-home order or locked down in the next 48 hours?" she asked. "But also, I have a lab report due at 3 p.m. Like, what's really going to take more cognitive capacity?"
She said the university's temporary policy acknowledges students' anxiety and gives them the flexibility to decide for themselves.
Other colleges have enacted similar policies. Middlebury College, in Vermont, is giving students the option to change their grades to the pass/fail system.Jeffrey Cason, the institution's provost and executive vice president, told Higher Ed Dive in an email that it was best to give students a choice.
He believes college officials will recognize this semester as one marked by significant disruption. "[E]veryone will know and understand that the nature of teaching and learning in this semester was, to say the least, unusual."
Making student services accessible for online learners
As institutions enroll more remote adult students, they are realizing advising, career services and other supports must be available around the clock.
By: Wayne D'Orio
With college enrollment mostly flatand the number of adult learners taking online classes expected to increase, it doesn't take a business major to determine that more colleges and universities will be targeting this largely untapped student segment.
Several have already made moves to that effect, including the University of Massachusetts System, which in early 2019 announced plans for a national online college focused on these so-called "nontraditional" students.
But traditionally campus-based institutions can find themselves outpaced as they try to match offerings from online-only schools, especially when it comes to critical services that can help attract and retain students, such as financial aid and academic advising. The act of retrofitting these typically on-campus services to meet the needs of a new subset of students can be awkward, especially compared to the streamlined offerings of online-only institutions.
Colleges leaders looking to distill the problem should consider the hours many of these students keep. Take Sunday evening, which for most colleges is a time when many of their support services are unavailable, waiting to reopen on Monday morning. For a student juggling a job and a family, however, Sunday evening can be a prime time to do schoolwork.
If that student encounters a problem — anything from a question about their financial aid status to confusion over how to post a reply on a class message board — the opportunity to help them could be lost, and it could be days before the student can clear that hurdle.
"With the growth in popularity of online education, there is a great deal of competition for these students," said Sue Ohrablo, a college advising consultant. "Establishing a point of difference in support will help attract new students. A popular phrase that's heard when discussing these strategies is 'concierge-level service.'"
While small and large institutions alike can struggle to set up supports for online students, online-only schools are zooming ahead when it comes to technological achievements.
Artificial intelligence (AI) "is changing the game," said Erika Orris, chief enrollment and marketing officer at the University of Maryland University College(UMUC). Founded in 1947 to help educate veterans,it now serves more than 80,000 students around the world as one of 12 degree-granting institutions in the University System of Maryland.UMUC started offering online classes in the mid-'90s. To reflect its transition to a fully online institution, UMUC plans to change its name to the University of Maryland Global Campus.
For its part, the college already uses AI to run mock interviews for students and plans to roll out an AI-driven advising model. "We're a little late launching ours," Orris added.
UMUC has also streamlined its registration model to allow for two-click sign-up. And the online college promises students a 48-hour turnaround on responses from its writing center and runs a call center that operates 24/7.
"Students don't have a lot of time for administrative tasks," Orris said. "We need to get all of those things out of the way so they can focus on schoolwork."
At Winona State University, which serves fewer than 8,000 undergraduates in Minnesota, progress has come slower. Darcie Anderson Mueller and Amy Meyer, both academic advisers at the school's Warrior Success Center, used a $6,000 grant from the university to create an online component to Winona's advising and career counseling services office.
While Winona is ahead of most campus-based schools today, the pair admit it was hard to push the entire student workflow online. Often, there would be a form that needed a signature, requiring the student to come to campus. Now, the Winona administration not only accepts online forms, but it also offers a web-based counseling service started by Anderson Mueller and Meyer for off-campus students to get face time with staff. As the pair have attended regional and national advising conferences, "We haven't seen other schools that have been this comprehensive," Meyer said.
There's also an unexpected benefit at Winona. While the college has revamped the system to better serve online students, the pair find many campus-based learners use the services during extended hours. In fact, the heaviest usage times are during winter break.
"Establishing a point of difference in support will help attract new students. A popular phrase that's heard when discussing these strategies is 'concierge-level service.'"
College advising consultant
Winona's example of making some progress before finding gaps in its system isn't novel. To combat these oversights, Victoria Brown, assistant provost for eLearning at Florida Atlantic University, helped create a Quality Scorecard for Online Student Support.
The checklist, from the Online Learning Consortium, covers 11 service areas within an institution. They range from expected offerings such as admissions and financial aid to graduate student support and services for those with disabilities. The scorecard is meant to help distance learning administrators ensure an institution is covering all its bases for online students, shesaid.
While combing through various institutions' online offerings, Brown discovered some common areas of weakness. Many institutions still require graduate students to do research or apply for grants on campus. Most colleges realize they need to extend services beyond normal work hours, but many are struggling to find the right mix of support, she said. In some cases, a phone call can fix a problem, but in other areas, students crave the stronger connection that a video chat can help build.
"Online students may feel isolated and disconnected from the institution," Ohrablo said. But they may also be seeking information during their commutes or on a lunch hour, making features like web conferencing impractical. "It is important to provide synchronous and asynchronous opportunities for online students to obtain the assistance they need," she said.
Minding the competition
Primarily campus-based colleges that want to enhance their support for remote students should pay attention to institutions that offer online education at scale.
Western Governors Universityuses a rolling admission system to welcome 6,000 new students each month, said Bob Collins, the institution's vice president of financial aid. The university has 115,000 full-time students, who are enrolled in self-paced competency-based education courses that run on six-month terms that kick off on the first day of each month.
The university also simplified its support services around students' four most common needs, Collins said. Technical assistance is the highest priority for the online-only college and is offered seven days a week with extended hours, though not 24/7. Next in importance is assessment delivery, which addresses students' questions about issues such as taking proctored exams or finding a testing center. That service is also available seven days a week.
"Students don't have a lot of time for administrative tasks. We need to get all of those things out of the way so they can focus on schoolwork."
Chief enrollment and marketing officer, University of Maryland University College
The third and fourth options, financial aid and student services such as academic counseling, are less vital because the related tasks don't stand in the way of students completing their work, Collins said. These services are offered five and six days a week, respectively.
Collins said the university does not have a target ratio of counselors to students, but it does adhere to a simple rule: 70% of the time a phone call will be answered within 30 seconds, and 92% of the questions or problems are addressed within 24 hours.
While there is little research linking online services offered to student success, there is a growing realization of the vital role they can play, Ohrablo said.
"Institutions are realizing the importance of engaging and supporting online students in order to foster student retention and success," she said. "The attrition rates of online students tend to be higher than their campus-based counterparts, and institutions recognize the importance of closing that gap."
Article top image credit: Josue Valencia
Four strategies to inspire active learning & promote student success at your institution
It has long been known that successful learning requires more than listening. When active learning occurs, instructors tend to see student engagement soar, exam scores are better, and learners’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills improve — even for the most complex subject matter. In one study of 225 STEM classrooms, researchers found that, on average, examination scores for students exposed to active learning were approximately 6% higher than for those taught via traditional lectures. It was also observed that failure rates in the same student population were about 1.5 times lower.¹ Beyond the empirical performance measures, active learning also has a positive psychological impact. Both students and instructors are more engaged and enthusiastic.
And yet, despite this long-held understanding of the benefits of active learning, traditional postsecondary classroom size and structure is still oriented toward lecture-based instruction and passive learning.²
To address this shortfall, in 2017, EDUCAUSE research identified the Active Learning Classroom (ALC) as the top strategic technology. Together with makerspaces, ALC designs increasingly promote coursework that helps learners discover, invent, solve problems and create knowledge.
With regard to modern classroom design, active learning classrooms typically have the following characteristics:
They typically feature round or curved tables with moveable seating, allowing students to face each other and thus support small-group work.
Tables are often paired with their own whiteboards for brainstorming and diagramming.
Many tables are linked to large LCD displays so students can project their computer screens to the group, and the instructor can choose a table’s work to share with the entire class.
Wireless internet plays an important role in retrieving resources and linking to content management systems.
Depending upon the size of the room, table microphones can be critical, so that every student’s voice can be broadcast across the room.³
Active learning strategies can be employed within the classroom to inspire engagement, debate and discussion. If you are looking to embrace active learning in your postsecondary institution, here are four particular strategies recommended by experts in higher education:
Establish commitment – instead of imposing strict rules and structure on students’ learning, offer students a chance to think critically about their learning and encourage them to devise their own solutions to challenges that they may face along the way.
Disrupt reality – Replace actual reality with an imagined one, presenting students with alternative or futuristic events and happenings.
Introduce imagined solutions – Ask students to use their own experiences and knowledge to explore course concepts.
Incorporate arts-based pedagogy – Integrate visual and theater-based activity to encourage students to think more creatively, abstractly and cooperatively when tackling complex subject matter.²
For years, online learning has held a lot of promise for educators and training departments. As we've seen over the past 20 years, some of what passes as online learning can be classified as thoughtful and engaging, while other online experiences lack the care and attention needed to enable all learners to succeed. The quality of a learning experience is not dependent on the medium of the experience, whether it's online, or face-to-face, or uses video or short-wave radio. The quality is dependent on how well the experience is designed. As an instructor responsible for that design, you may ask yourself, what should be my main considerations when I look to upgrade to a more modern teaching and learning approach?
First, it's important to remember, teaching and learning comes in a variety of forms, some more engaging and higher in quality than others. What makes a learning experience of higher quality has been studied and debated for many years now. If you're new to these considerations, Congratulations! A lot of work has been done to make the transition easier. There are plenty of books, articles in pedagogical periodicals, newsletters, conferences, and online resources available. This is also a great opportunity to take advantage of your institution's center for instruction or other professional development resources. Educating yourself on what works and what doesn't is one of the best places to start. (including reading this article!)
Meet learners where they are
Another important quality principle to consider when moving your course online is to meet learners where they are. Not all students who enter our door are as prepared to be as successful as we would like. This requires us to rethink how we teach if we intend to meet their needs. Ungraded pre-tests and quizzes can be used to see what learners already know about the content you're covering or about to cover next.
It's important to remember that all students need your help in learning how to learn new material. Remember the first time you were introduced in class to a concept that blew your mind as a student? Remember thinking, how am I ever going to manage to learn this? What's the trick? While you may not have signed up to teach a vocabulary lesson in your subject, it may be critical for students to get one for them to be better at understanding the information you're presenting. This is why it's important to meet students where they are, so you can help them get to where you want them to be.
It cannot be emphasized enough, the importance of keeping communication channels open with your learners. Since you're at a physical distance, students need to know how and where to ask questions. Posting clear instructions or an FAQ in your course or syllabus on how to direct questions and inquiries will go a long way in bridging the transactional distance. Online office hours can be useful as a means for providing a clear communication point with learners as well as a specific thread in a discussion forum dedicated to learner questions and concerns.
Course management is a task that's incredibly important and easily overlooked. College students, no matter if they're online or face to face, need to know where they are and what's happening in their courses. Clearly communicating the syllabus, and expectations associated with readings, activities, assignments, discussions, and so on, needs to be a top priority when developing an online learning experience. My father was a Navy captain's son, and he instilled in me a saying that I always use: proper, prior planning prevents [email protected]# poor performance. The seven P's as they say. And it works. Planning your moves and engagements ahead of time helps facilitate the learning process for you and your students.
Adopt different instructional methods
There is a tremendous amount of good literature online about active learning, learner-centered teaching, and supporting high levels of quality interaction and engagement. Over the years I've learned to use what works best for me and my learners' needs. When moving online be sure and take advantage of its highly visual nature. I use a lot of slides to tell my stories and convey content, followed by specific activities that have students analyzing, comparing, assessing, and applying the knowledge they are in the process of acquiring. Remember, as the instructor, you are modeling the skills, knowledge, and behaviors you want your students to adopt.
Use assessments proactively
Most students today are used to checking their grades online. It is important to make sure your grading policies and procedures are super clear. Take the time to explain how your system works and provide examples to be as clear as you can. Remind students how grades are used as a means to uncover what learners know and to inform the instructor how well they are teaching the content.
It is understandable to feel overwhelmed when adopting new strategies, techniques, and media. However, it is important to remember what drew us to this profession in the first place. For most of us, it was a passion that we held for our subject area, a desire to know everything about it, to study every angle, every corner, every detail. We are so moved by our subject matter, we even sport the desire to teach others about it.
In higher education, we have a chance to teach, learn, research, and influence our discipline, which in turn shapes our larger world. When it comes to teaching and learning, we have the research and we know what works best. Today's successful college instructor has never been better positioned to meet the needs of every learner. Embracing the challenge and taking steps like those mentioned above can empower you and your learners for generations to come.
Article top image credit: Sam Edwards via Getty Images
3 ways community colleges can support students during the coronavirus crisis
To meet the needs of their most vulnerable learners, these institutions should provide critical services such as help applying for government assistance.
By: Natalie Schwartz
As the coronavirus pandemic grinds a growing number of industries to a halt, colleges nationwide are moving classes online and limiting in-person services to help stem the outbreak.
Yet community colleges, which receive less government funding per student than public four-year universities, have had fewer resources to prepare for the outbreak.Given that their students also are more likely to be low income and have children than those attending bachelor's institutions, two-year schools are tasked with addressing the virus on several fronts.
Equity advocates say the coronavirus could knock community college students off track if it jeopardizes their employment, their ability to make rent or mortgage payments, or their access to food.
Community college students are disproportionately susceptible to these issues. One-quarter of students at two-year public schools were in poverty as of 2016, according to Pew Research Center data. And about 60% reported some form of food or housing insecurity in the past year, accordingto a recent report from the Hope Center.
"The most important thing for colleges to think carefully about (is) their most vulnerable student populations who are most likely to fall through the cracks," Debbie Cochrane, executive vice president of The Institute for College Access & Success, told Higher Ed Dive. Doing so will make colleges "better positioned to come up with policies that support all of their students," she added.
Here are three ways community colleges can help their students during the pandemic.
Connect students to resources
Community colllege officials should be mindful that students may struggle to afford housing if they lose their jobs or if their work hours are reduced due to the coronavirus, experts say.
Although their students don't typically live on campus, community college shutdowns could cut them off from key services offered in-person, such as help applying for federal housing or food assistance.
That's the case for some students in the Seattle area. The United Way of King County operates hubs at several of the region's community colleges, where students can get assistance with applying for financial aid, signing up for public benefits and navigating emergency housing.
But the nonprofit decided to close the centers to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. Washington state has been one of the hardest-hit regions of the U.S., accounting for nearly half of the nation's reported deaths from COVID-19.
The program has since transitioned to a remote model, with coaches assisting students over the phone and online.
"Folks are really struggling, and so part of our jobs now is to make sure (they) know they can reach out even if their college is not open."
Senior director of ending homelessness and poverty, United Way of King County
"The hard part is making sure that we're still reaching students, that they know about these services," Lauren McGowan, the nonprofit's senior director of ending homelessness and poverty, told Higher Ed Dive. "Folks are really struggling, and so part of our jobs now is to make sure (they) know they can reach out even if their college is not open."
Lately, McGowan has seen a surge of requests for rent assistance from students and the general public. "So many folks have gone so quickly from just getting by and living paycheck to paycheck … to not having income," she said.
The pandemic has also ended some work-study jobs, though the U.S. Department of Education told institutions they could continue paying student workers if they closed their campuses after the semester started.
Keep food banks running
Food pantries have been promoted as a way to help alleviate the pervasive issue of student hunger on college campuses. Yet campus closures might limit students' access to this important resource.
Bunker Hill Community College, in Boston, has kept its food bank open amid the outbreak, though it reduced its hours. It is also encouraging students to order online so workers can get their items ready for pickup.
"We want to get them in and out as quickly as possible," said Karen Norton, a spokesperson for the college. Bunker Hill also sent messages to some 800 students, faculty and staff who've used the food pantry before to let them know they can still access it.
The City University of New York (CUNY), which enrolls some 275,000 students across 25 campuses, is keeping some of its food pantries open and allowing students to go to any location, said Nicholas Freudenberg, a professor at CUNY and the director of its Urban Food Policy Institute.
"Flexibility and communication and an acknowledgment of what everybody is going through collectively are going to be really important."
Lindsey Reichlin Cruse
Study director, Institute for Women's Policy Research
"Some students who were not food insecure will become food insecure," he said.
The system is helping students find their closest community-based food assistance programs. But those organizations might be under stress as they lose volunteers just as more people are requesting their services, Freudenberg said.
The Hope Center posted guidance for how colleges can continue to support students amid the outbreak.It notes that students who lose part or all of their income may become eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP),and says colleges should be ready to help students apply for it and other government assistance programs.
A federal judge delayed the implementation of new regulations that would have made it harder for states to issue waivers to those who don't meet the program's work requirements, which experts predicted would have affected some college students.
Right now, colleges "need to help students troubleshoot and connect them with people who will provide solutions," Paula Umaña, director of community impact at the Hope Center, told Higher Ed Dive.
Be flexible with online education
Amid the crisis, colleges are moving most classes online. Yet only four in five students say they have reliable access to the internet or a computer, according to a survey of more than 10,000 students by Ithaka S+R.
Some community colleges have kept their libraries open for those students as they moved classes online. But as the crisis escalated, more shut down entirely, said Christine Wolff-Eisenberg, manager of surveys and research at Ithaka S+R.
Certain internet service providers are expanding access during the outbreak, including by allowing low-income households to freely use their internet plans for a limited time.
Still, students likely won't have equitable access to the internet.
Observers have also floated the possibility of loaning students internet hot spots and computers, though lesser-resourced institutions, such as community colleges, may not be able to offer as many as students need.
"It's a big deal for (community colleges) to get a couple dozen laptops or a couple dozen Wi-Fi hot spots," Wolff-Eisenberg said. "When I think about that versus the size of the student body, it just doesn't scale."
To accommodate their students, community college instructors should be flexible with assignments and deadlines, several experts told Higher Ed Dive. That could include offering multiple options for completing an assignment and loose due dates.
Community colleges also should structure classes so coursework can be done asynchronously. Assignments that require real-time streaming or other high-bandwidth activities should be avoided altogether so students without high-speed internet aren't left out.
Some students may need to scale back their course load or temporarily stop-out during the pandemic. In those cases, community college officials should work with the students to create a plan for them to return, said Dave Jarrat, senior vice president of strategic engagement and growth at InsideTrack, in an interview with Higher Ed Dive.
That could help ensure they ultimately complete a credential. The organization's research has found that non-first-time community college students are more likely to earn an associate degree if they mix part-time and full-time enrollment as they balance responsibilities outside of school.
Students who are also parents or guardians may especially feel the crunch as child care centers and schools close. "It puts even more pressure on parents' time and ability to focus on their studies," said Lindsey Reichlin Cruse, study director at the Institute for Women's Policy Research, in an interview with Higher Ed Dive.
"Flexibility and communication and an acknowledgment of what everybody is going through collectively are going to be really important," she said.
Article top image credit: FluxFactory, E+ via Getty Images
College completion rates still rising in most states
By: Jeremy Bauer-Wolf
Most states increased their six-year completion rates between 2009 and 2013, recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) reveals.
Some states that experienced the biggest gains during that time were among the most populous in the country, the report notes: Ohio, Georgia, Michigan, New York and California.
Notably, 33 states boosted completion rates among students who started at two-year institutions in 2013 compared to those who started the year before.This comes as many community colleges attempt to be more inventive in retaining their students and helping them graduate.
NSCRC's report follows its earlier research that showed nationally, six-year completion rates had reached an eight-year high of 60%.
Completion rates among institutions of all types — public and private four-year colleges, as well as public two-year colleges — all reached historic highs since NSCRC began tracking the data in 2006.
The state-level information, which largely mirrors the national patterns, provides a more nuanced view of which jurisdictions have been most successful in raising their completion rates.
Ohio, Georgia and Michigan each lifted their six-year rates by roughly 9 percentage points over the period tracked, which were some of the biggest increases. Only two states backslid. Alabama lost a little over 1 percentage point and New Hampshire fell by nearly 9 percentage points.
NSCRC did not provide comparative data on five states — Alaska, Arizona, Louisiana, Oklahoma and West Virginia — citing "uneven historical data coverage."
The findings bode well for two-year colleges, which nationwide had completion rates of nearly 41% for students who started at one of those institutions in 2013. A majority of states increased their two-year college completion rates among such students, though eight states saw drops,the most significant being South Dakota, which dropped 4 percentage points.
The report also notes that first-time community college students are getting younger. Eight states had a 3-percentage-point-increase in the share of traditional-age students starting at two-year colleges in 2012 and 2013.
Community colleges have not escaped the heightened scrutiny of the higher education sector, with skeptics wondering whether these schools, which have generally offered a less-expensive route to a postsecondary credential, can deliver a return on investment.
Transitioning to guided pathways from the traditional delivery of education at community colleges (which one Brookings Institution report characterized as "cafeteria-style") can be time-consuming.
But the model can yield positive results, as many institutions have discovered. Wallace State Community College, in Alabama, began shifting its model in 2012. From 2013 to 2017, the share of students earning a degree within three years climbed 15 percentage points.
Here's how community colleges are improving STEM education
Researchers and administrators share how to better serve students in these fields and warn of potential obstacles.
By: Natalie Schwartz
For years, employers have been lamenting the dearth of workers able to fill their open STEM jobs. The problem is particularly acute in fast-changing fields, such as data science and information technology.
Ramping up STEM education at community colleges has been floated as one way to address the yawning skills gap. Large technology companies — including Amazon, Google and Facebook — have bought into this idea and even helped two-year institutions develop STEM curriculum tailored to their workforce needs.
But student outcomes at community colleges tend to lag compared to public colleges and universities. Only about one-quarter of students who enroll at a public community college to earn a credential do so from that institution within three years, according to federal data. Certain state policies could lead to more debt, and a lack of guidance from advisers and unclear transfer pathways can all stand between students and their diploma.
Some community colleges are addressing these problems head-on. At the Association of American Colleges and Universities' 2019 conference, researchers and administrators shared how they're reshaping STEM education at their institutions to teach in-demand job skills and lead more students to graduation.
Creating diversity in STEM
Although the U.S. has a growing need for workers in fields such as health care, computer science and data science, colleges and universities are still graduating a lower share of underrepresented students in STEM.
Just 12.6% of black students and 16.7% of Hispanic students who graduated with a bachelor's degree in 2016 did so in a STEM field, according to a 2019 report from the American Council on Education. That's compared to 34.7% of Asian students and 20.5% of white students.
Community colleges in the Central Florida STEM Alliance are hoping to change that. With the help of two federal grants, they want to increase the number of underrepresented minority students who transfer to STEM bachelor's degree programs as well as enhance their educational experience through the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation program.
The colleges, which include Valencia and Polk State, provide an array of services to participating students, including a summer bridge program, frequent meetings with advisers, and the potential to conduct undergraduate research, an opportunity usually reserved for students at universities.
"If they don't do research now, in their first and second years, when they come to (a four-year) campus as juniors, what are they going to do?" John Fynn, senior program specialist at Polk State College, said during the conference. "Their research has to start right here in community college."
Another challenge was students lacking a sense of community.
"Our college is a commuter school," Fynn said. "People come, and they go to class, (and) they walk out the door." Peer-to-peer support and STEM clubs can help bridge this divide.
The results have been promising. Research shows that Valencia College students who participated in the program between the fall of 2014 to the summer of 2017 had a graduation rate of 46.8%, compared to 24.4% of underrepresented STEM students who weren't in the program.
The drawbacks of excess credit policies
Ideally, transfer students amass 60 or fewer credits that all seamlessly count toward a four-year degree. But that's not the reality for many of them.
Students may change their minds about what they want to study or take classes they don't need for their credential, racking up excess credits in the process and potentially delaying their graduation. That's drawn concern from lawmakers in some states and led to policies that charge students higher tuition once they reach a certain number of credits.
In Florida, for example, college students pay double tuition once they've earned 120% of the credits needed to complete their program. Texas, Wisconsin, Utah and Arizona have similar policies meant to encourage students to complete their programs on time.
Through interviews with about 25 community college students enrolled in STEM programs, two researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder, Heidi Loshbaugh and Dana Holland Zahner, have learned that excess credit policies can make it harder for students to explore different career pathways.
That doesn't align with the considerations of many community college students. Students may select their majors based on which institutions admit them, causing them to take prerequisites for a variety of programs.
"If students are navigating multiple unknown pathways, depending on what they're getting into, they're automatically needing to accrue excess credits," Holland Zahner said at the conference.
The researchers' work builds on a 2017 analysis published by the American Educational Research Association that found such policies led to increases in student debt — and not necessarily timely graduation rates.
STEM students may also be less concerned about graduating on time than they are about getting into their program of choice. To keep their grades up, many of the students that Loshbaugh and Holland Zahner studied are taking only 12 credit hours a semester, instead of the 15 recommended to graduate in four years.
"From these students' point of view, that was a way to manage staying competitive and not risk failing courses," Holland Zahner said.
Streamlining math pathways
Students in STEM majors aren't the only ones who can benefit from these changes.
In the 2015-16 academic year, 72% of students at Maryland community colleges needed to take remedial classes. However, a growing body of research suggests that such courses can delay graduation and add to students' debt levels.
It is also expensive for schools. Annual costs for developmental education reached $75 million for Maryland's community colleges and $14 million for institutions in the University System of Maryland in the 2011 fiscal year, according to an analysis provided to the state.
In 2016, the University System of Maryland secured a nearly $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to help overhaul remedial math courses at some of the state's two- and four-year institutions.
Officials created and have since implemented two new math pathways for non-STEM majors, one that prepares students for statistics and another that covers math literacy. This system allows students in liberal arts, social sciences and other related majors to sidestep algebra-intensive remedial math courses if they don't need it.
It also makes it easier for students to know which classes they need to take.
"You can (tell) me what you want your major to be, and I can tell you what your math class is," said John Hamman, interim chief analytics and effectiveness officer at Montgomery College, a two-year college in Maryland. "It takes away choice at that level."
The change appears to have paid off. Those who enrolled in one of the new math pathways were more likely to pass their final remedial classes than students who continued to take traditional remedial classes, according to a study conducted in 2017.
"We got away from just saying, 'Well, what did we wish (students) would have learned in high school?'… to really saying, 'If we want students to be successful, what are the skills necessary for that course?'" Hamman said. "That narrow focus was really helpful for us."
Article top image credit: Getty Images
State plans to raise attainment vary
A new report shows states are vying to improve performance based on their unique social, educational and economic structures and workforce needs.
By: James Paterson
More than 40 states have attainment goals and the strategic plans to achieve them, but they vary in their ambition, progress so far and prospects for long-term success, according to a report from Ithaka S+R.
Massachusetts and Colorado have the highest attainment rates across all types of postsecondary credentials, while Oregon is the most ambitious with a goal of having 80% of its residents earn at least an associate degree or career-related certificate by 2025.
From 2005 to 2017, the national attainment rate increased by 5.1 percentage points, though the report notes that it's difficult to assess whether the increases are due to a push from the states or external factors.
At the center of this effort is the Lumina Foundation, which has a goal of 60% of American adults holding some form of postsecondary credential by 2025. States have generally followed suit, though not all in the same way.
Ithaka's report examines some of the nuances in how each state has approached those goals. That's expected given each one's unique social, educational and economic structures and workforce needs.
Maryland, for instance, determined that a more educated population will draw businesses seeking a high-skill, high-wage workforce. As such, it focused on increasing the number of bachelor's and associate degrees, rather than certificates.
Meanwhile, New Mexico set targets for K-12 and higher ed, and Rhode Island established "targeted and comprehensive strategies" to close equity gaps across K-12 and postsecondary education.
Other states, including Alabama and Oklahoma, are focusing more directly on workforce training, and Alabama incorporated K-12 and higher ed attainment goals. Tennessee is approaching its goals through a public-private partnership with Nissan and the state chamber of commerce.
Across the board, state attainment goals so far tend to be weighted toward bachelor's degrees. As one caveat, and reflective of the challenge to fulfilling these goals, several states' plans focus on residents in their 20s, 30s and 40s.
Regardless of structure, the report notes, "preliminary evidence suggests that many states may have difficulty meeting their goals." The Education Trust has expressed a similar concern, particularly in connection with minority attainment.
Disparities in who enrolls and completes college have resulted in degree attainment gaps between white adults (47%) and black (30.8%) and Latino (22.6%) adults, the Education Trust report shows. Boosting minority degree attainment will be critical to addressing workforce needs, yet some states have only vague intentions in place to address equity gaps.
It's difficult to assess the effect goal setting has on attainment. However, three states among the half dozen with the lowest degree attainment rates — Mississippi, Louisiana and West Virginia — also are among the eight states that have not established goals. Meanwhile, the five states with the highest degree attainment rates — Massachusetts, Minnesota, Colorado, New Jersey and Virginia — all have goals of at least 60% attainment.
Article top image credit: Photo by Good Free Photos on Unsplash
How colleges are changing remedial education
Fueled by research and the imperative to raise graduation rates, some institutions are revising or altogether replacing developmental classes.
By: James Paterson
Well-intentioned remedial education courses, and the testing that too often imprecisely places students in them, may be doing more harm than good.
That's according to a surge of research and exploratory initiatives that suggest colleges could replace them with a mix of assessment methods and alternative supports to move students ahead while catching them up.
"Developmental education was designed to help students, but it didn't really work," said Christopher Mullin, director of Strong Start to Finish,a college access advocacy group that works with institutions to improve remedial education. "Now there is a lot of energy out there to find a better alternative."
The research is extensive and straightforward.Although about half of first-year students are found to require remedial classes in either math, English or both, the assessments colleges use to make that decision vary widely and don't always reflect students' potential success with college-level coursework.
In one case, researchers found that about one-fourth of students in remedial math and one-third in remedial English were "severely mis-assigned" to the courses using common test-based methods, and that many could have earned at least a B in a regular college course.
What's more, students who take remedial classes are generally less likely to graduate within six years than are their peers who didn't take such courses.
"Traditional approaches to college preparedness are increasingly scrutinized because their outcomes are poor, by and large," said Patrick Partridge, president of WGU Academy,the new remedial education platform offered by Western Governors University, one of the nation's biggest online colleges.
They're also costly. Research puts the total annual expense to students and families at $1.3 billion and to colleges at $7 billion.
Using 'multiple measures'
Although test scores determine most remedial class placements, low-risk students often thrive when other factors — particularly a combination of them — are used instead. Those tend to include GPA, college entrance exams and work experience.
"For some time, we knew the two primary assessments (the ACT's Compass and the College Board's Accuplacer) for placement into remediation were not doing a very good job of predicting how students would do in college courses, and we had been thinking about other information we could use," said Sarah Truelsch, director of policy research at the City University of New York (CUNY).
The system has been a leader in trying new ways to assess, place and boost struggling students as they enter college. "We found that even high school grades were much more closely aligned with success in college," she said.
Starting in the fall of 2019, CUNY will use an algorithm to evaluate students and recommend them to different developmental education options. The algorithm factors in a student's high school grades and scores on the SAT and state Regents Examination to determine whether they would need extra support to succeed in a regular credit-bearing course.
As of December 2018, 19 states used some combination of high school grades, standardized tests, college entrance exam scores, work experience and even apparent grit to place students. And reports from states and systems using such measures indicate they're working.
Public institutions in Arkansas have had success developing alternatives to a lone remedial test score as a placement mechanism, Mullin said. They are working with Strong Start to Finish to find alternatives to placement and supports for students after the state mandated them to do so.
"Placing students more accurately by collecting and examining more student data is one simple step colleges and systems can take," said Mike Leach, director of the Center for Student Success at Arkansas Community Colleges.
At Arkansas Tech University, using a combination of GPA and ACT and Accuplacer scores helped reduce the number of students in remedial classes from 1,032 in 2017 to 794 in 2018. The pass rate of the students who took remedial classes rose from 51% to 55% during that time. Other supports were offered, including academic advising, supplemental instruction and mentorship.
Since January 2018, the California Community Colleges System has been operating under legislation that requires its institutions to use multiple measures for some course placement.
Data on the impact of the new legislation is forthcoming, said Alice Perez, vice chancellor for academic affairs at the California Community Colleges, in an email to Higher Ed Dive. However, early findings from the Public Policy Institute of California are hopeful. It found more students are entering and completing transfer-level courses.
"Most students who enter a community college never complete a degree or certificate or transfer to a four-year university," Perez said. "These changes are imperative to increase degree and certificate attainment, workforce outcomes and transfers." She added that changes made through the legislation, state Assembly Bill 705, "represent a significant step forward."
Beyond more carefully deciding which students require remedial classes, states and colleges are looking to incorporate that education into credit-bearing curriculum to help students graduate on time and without extra cost.
In 2015, Tennessee became the first state to drop traditional stand-alone remedial courses, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported, in favor of a corequisite model.Now offered nationwide, this approach places students in a college-level class with the support of a tutor or another class dedicated to reviewing core concepts.
Two years later, Texas passed a bill requiring 75% of students in remedial education as of the 2020-21 academic year to be in corequisite courses.
In the fall of 2018, the California State University System announced it is replacing its traditional remedial classes with two-semester-long versions of credit-bearing courses, taken alongside a support class.
The Los Angeles Times reported in February 2019 that some 7,800 California State University students who would have been required to take remedial math avoided it under the new guidelines and passed a regular math class in the fall of 2018. That's up from just 950 who did so the prior year.
Florida saw positive results, particularly for minority students, after it began allowing some students to forgo remedial classes and changed how such curricula are structured. Enrollment in developmental courses dropped while it increased in introductory-level classes as a result of the change, in 2014, explains the Center for Postsecondary Success. What's more, black and Hispanic students saw a bigger jump in credit attainment than did white students as a result of the change.
"Most students who enter a community college never complete a degree or certificate or transfer to a four-year university. These changes are imperative to increase degree and certificate attainment, workforce outcomes and transfers."
Vice chancellor for academic affairs, California Community Colleges
CUNY takes a different approach. Students flagged as needing support can choose between two preterm intensive programs.
One, CUNY Start, combines tutoring in reading, writing and math, as well as advising and college preparedness training, in a course that runs up to a semester in length before a student formally enrolls. The other, Math Start, is offered as an eight-to-10-week program focused on math. At $75 and $35, respectively, the programs are priced to not cut into student aid.
They also are designed to feed students into CUNY's ASAP program, which itself aims to help students efficiently complete associate degrees.The program has been successful at graduating students, and other institutions have since copied its approach.
Another alternative, Mullin said, is putting students in introductory math courses that align with their majors, such as statistics or quantitative reasoning.
Others, like CUNY, are compressing developmental courses into intensive, typically low-cost packages. For instance, Virginia's community college system integrated its remedial reading and writing courses into a single class, tiered based on ability level.
"We're seeing success in a number of places with a variety of strategies," Mullin said. "Now, the goal is to determine what works best and scale it."
As demand for mental health services grows, colleges give students new tools
Streamlined counseling centers, de-stress stations and well-being initiatives are helping serve a broader range of student needs.
By: Natalie Schwartz
In 2013,George Mason Universityset its sights on a novel goal in higher education: becoming a model for how colleges can support well-being on campus.
The concept was simple. Rather than just provide students with an education, the public university in Virginia would bake well-being into every aspect of college life to help all members of its community thrive and find personal fulfillment.
So far, George Mason has made strides toward its goal by increasing the number of well-being programs on campus and regularly assessing the engagement levels of faculty and staff, among other initiatives. And the university is hardly alone; colleges across the country are doubling down on their efforts to help students de-stress and get centered.
"Simply showing that somebody has a diploma is not going to be the currency of the future," says Brandon Busteed, a former executive at Gallup Education, in a video from George Mason explaining the initiative. "It's going to be, 'Did that diploma significantly increase my likelihood of having a great job and a great life?' That may be the new metric against which universities are measured."
Such initiatives stem partly from college students' mounting anxiety. Four in 10 incoming college freshmen in the fall of 2016 reported feeling "overwhelmed" by their responsibilities,compared to 28% in 2000, according to research from the Higher Education Research Institute.
And members of Generation Z — or those born since 1997 — are the least likely to report "excellent or very good" mental health, according to an October 2018 report from the American Psychological Association (APA).At the same time, they are more likely to seek help from a mental health professional, with 37% reporting they've done so, compared to 35% of Millennials and 26% of Gen Xers.
It will be critical for colleges to address Gen Z's mental health needs head-on and from the start of their time on campus. One-fourth of Gen Zers say they don't do enough to manage their stress, and nearly three-quarters (73%) indicate they could have benefited from more emotional support in the last 12 months, according to the APA.
College mental health centers, however, are in the midst of a crisis. Several student newspapers have chronicled the severe staffing shortages and long wait timesplaguing the counseling centers at their institutions. And although demand for counseling services has grown, reduced state support and tuition revenue from enrollment declines have sapped many colleges' mental health budgets.
Increased demand has prompted some colleges to look for ways to take some of the pressure off counseling centers through well-being initiatives. Those can include meditation, yoga classes or designated areas where students can go to turn off their electronics, take naps and engage in other activities to de-stress.
At George Mason, many of those efforts are facilitated through the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being, a small office nestled near the center of the university's sprawling campus. Melissa Schreibstein, director of well-being programs for the center, explains that it doesn't usually host programs but rather helps other units and departments across campus embed well-being initiatives into the services and programs they offer.
Over the years, that has taken the form ofa daylong campuswide observation of gratitude, a digital badge students can earn for life skills around resilience, and a living-learning communityfocused on a "holistic college experience," which includes mindfulness, positive psychology and stress management.
"The center knows we can't go at this alone, nor can our mental health professionals go at it alone, nor can our faculty go at it alone — or students themselves," Schreibstein said. "The more complex the challenges are, the more collaboration that's needed."
Wellness across campus
Many colleges are recognizing they need a campuswide effort to adequately address Gen Z and other students' mental health needs. Yet higher ed has a reputation for having pervasive silos that hamper collaboration.
Campus leaders at the University of South Florida ran up against that problem when they tried to respond to rising demand for its mental health services. "We had a lot of resources, but the usage of those resources was low," said Rita DeBate, associate vice president of health and wellness. "The communication between those resources was low to none. There weren't any cross-referrals going on."
To ensure more collaboration, the university took three divisions — Enrollment Planning and Management, Student Affairs and Undergraduate Studies — and rolled them into one cohesive unit called Student Success.
The university also rolled out a three-tier system, called MWell4Success, to better address students' mental health needs, DeBate said.
The first tier requires all incoming students to take a mental health literacy training, which teaches them how to spot the signs of distress both within themselves and their peers, as well as how to approach someone and talk to that person about the resources available on campus.
The university also launched a success and wellness coaching service, which is free for all students and includes a remote Skype option. This system, DeBate explained, is meant for students who don't need counseling or therapy services, freeing up space for more high-risk students, such as those with eating disorders or who may be suicidal.
Doing so can have a big impact on the counseling center, DeBate said, as roughly one-fourth of U of South Florida students were seeking care there for issues that don't require a therapist, such as help with time management and relationship troubles.
At the same time, the college ramped up on-campus offerings that promote well-being and stress reduction. Now, students can take advantage of three relaxation stations filled with nap pods, massage chairs and bean bag chairs, as well as classes for yoga and meditation.
More than 10,000 students have gone to one of the relaxation stations, which were found to have a significant effect on decreasing anxiety. The stations are "more holistic," DeBate said. "(They're) somewhere a student can go and unplug, relax between classes, recharge after an exam."
All three are housed within a wellness center, where success coaches and mental health counselors are available, DeBate explains. That way, students experiencing more serious mental health issues can make a counseling appointment on the spot without the attached stigma of going to the mental health center.
That can help with the university's second tier of wellness services, which focuses on early identification of issues and treatment referrals for at-risk groups of students. The third tier, meanwhile, is reserved for students who need the most intensive mental health care. To increase communication across campus units, the university placed an emphasis on coordinating care across different campus units.
Nationwide push for wellness
U of South Florida and George Mason are just two of several colleges making significant changes to the way they approach mental health on campus.
Vanderbilt University recently launched an initiative to overhaul its mental health offerings. Like other colleges, the Tennessee university saw a need to centralize its suite of services. Vanderbilt did so on several fronts. For one, students can now find a full list of resources on the website for the university's Student Care Network,launched in 2018, from financial aid to spiritual help.
"The more complex the challenges are, the more collaboration that's needed."
Director of well-being programs at George Mason University
To further connect students with resources, Vanderbilt added the Office of Student Care Coordination to provide case management, giving each student a single point of contact for the suite of services needed throughout their time at the university.
Before, no person or group worked with students on an ongoing basis to "connect them to all the right places, help them stay accountable and re-evaluate stressors or challenges that would arise (to determine) what might make sense for the students in terms of resources," said G.L. Black, associate dean for community standards and student support.
The university also tasked the newly formed office with conducting intake appointments. That shift freed up time for the university's counselors, who previously were responsible for those appointments. Under the new system, wait times for appointments shrank from about two weeks to roughly a couple of days, Black said.
"By having some of these additional resources, and integrating mental health and well-being across all offices that are working with and supporting students, you help provide a better, stronger support network for students," Black said. "In turn, (that) helps alleviate some of the burdens on the counseling center."
The University of California, Los Angeles has undertaken similar measures. The university's Healthy Campus Initiative, launched in 2013,aims to bring together different initiatives and activities on campus that promote student well-being, from yoga classes that encourage physical activity to food pantries that help alleviate food insecurity.
Among those resources is the Mindfulness Ambassadors initiative, a three-year-old program that helps students interested in mindfulness spread the practice to others in the campus community, whether through meditation workshops or starting a blog.
"We hope that by giving students tools and skills, ... they can take care of some of their psychological, emotional and mental health needs themselves," said Allyson Pimentel, Mindful UCLA's program director. "It's sort of like fluoridated water. By sharing these tools, strategies and skills, students can (protect) themselves to a certain degree against some of the inevitable difficulties they'll encounter in the course of their college careers."
Meanwhile, some instructors are leading individual efforts to increase well-being on their campuses. Laura Hill, a senior lecturer at the University of Vermont, was looking for ways to incorporate meditation practices into her classes after she attended a yoga teacher training program.
She started by beginning each class with a "mindful minute," or a guided meditation that is meant to help students focus on the material during class time. Their reaction surprised her: "I thought it would come off as out of left field and be weird," she said. "They actually responded quite well."
As she later learned, the 'mindful minute' is a form of contemplative education, which focuses on introspection during academic study. "What I see when I walk into the classroom is that frenetic energy," Hill continued. "We do three deep breaths usually, and then everybody's calmer and more attentive. It's a sea change."
Diversity at the core
For a well-being initiative to be successful, it must encompass diversity and inclusion.
According to the APA report, among Gen Z, students of color report more stress around some issues than do white students. For instance, 41% of Gen Z students of color indicate that personal debt is a "significant source of stress," and 40% say the same about housing instability.That's compared to 30% and 24%, respectively, of white Gen Z students.
At Jefferson Community College, in New York, campus leaders have addressed some of those stressors by bringing a comprehensive suite of services under its Health and Wellness Center. Students can go to the center for a variety of reasons, including mental health services, a food pantry, housing assistance and help with SNAP applications — the latter a benefit college students often leave on the table.
Bringing its physical and mental health supports into one building has helped make the office more approachable, said Katy Troester-Trate, director of the Health and Wellness Center. "Students could be coming in for something as simple as a Band-Aid or an ice pack, or they could be coming in for mental health services," she said. "Their peers wouldn't have any idea why they're going into our building, so it reduces the stigma."
"If students are not mentally OK, they're not going to be able to be successful in the classroom. … If you make it a campuswide priority, everyone wins because everyone is able to focus on things they need to focus on."
Senior advisor, JED Foundation
That can be critical for students of color, as they are twice as likely not to seek mental health services when experiencing anxiety or depression as compared to white students, according to research cited by the JED Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to protect the emotional health of and prevent suicide among teens and young adults.
To create more equity in mental health services on campuses nationwide, the Foundation has collaborated with The Steve Fund to craft 10 recommendations for colleges to follow. They include making the mental health of students of color a campuswide priority; actively recruiting "diverse and culturally competent" staff and faculty members; and providing opportunities to engage students around national events.
Most importantly, commitment to diversity and inclusion in well-being initiatives needs to "come from the top," said Sofia Pertuz, a senior advisor at the JED Foundation.
"If students are not mentally OK, they're not going to be able to be successful in the classroom," Pertuz said. "That's just not possible. … So if you make it a campuswide priority, everyone wins because everyone is able to focus on things they need to focus on."
Colleges focus on bringing back stopped-out students
Sagging enrollment and a greater focus on outcomes are pushing colleges to reenroll students instead of replacing them with new recruits.
By: Natalie Schwartz
As one of the largest university systems in the U.S., the City University of New York (CUNY) can be a launching pad into a successful career for the 270,000-plus students it enrolls. Yet the common issue of retention often stands in its way.
Around one-third of full-time, first-time freshmen who started an associate degree program with CUNY in the fall of 2016 left the college within a year. And about 13.5% of full-time, first-time bachelor's students dropped out in the same period.
CUNY's retention rates are better than most, but they still reflect a big issue in higher education. More than 1 million college students drop out each year, a trend that cost colleges $16.5 billion in lost revenue in the 2010-11 academic year alone,according to a report from the Educational Policy Institute.
"It's a population that hasn't been focused on at all," said Anne Kubek, chief operating officer at ReUp Education, a San Francisco-based startup that helps colleges reenroll students who left without completing their degrees. "If you stop out at most universities, that's it. They don't connect with you. They don't follow up with you, you never hear from them again unless they're looking for monies owed."
That may be changing. Several headwinds — including sagging enrollment, diminished state support and a greater focus on student outcomes — are pushing colleges to bring back their stopped-out students instead of focusing solely on replacing them with new recruits.
At CUNY, officials have looked to ReUp Education for help bringing back some of its lost students. Through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the company selected the 25-campus system as the winner of a nationwide competition to receive its services for free. In exchange, the company gets to hone its reenrollment methods on some 20,000 former CUNY students who never finished their degrees.
The results of the test, CUNY officials say, will be used to determine which strategies are best at bringing students across the finish line.
"It was clear to us that the notion of working with a partner ... was going to be both incredibly instructive and helpful from a research design perspective," said Angie Kamath, CUNY's dean for continuing education and workforce development. CUNY's size requires it to be "really scientific and research-oriented in order to try things out that could eventually scale," she added.
Reaching out to stopped-out students
Launched in 2015, ReUp has turned reenrolling students into a science. Using predictive analytics and machine learning, the company can pinpoint the students who are most likely to enroll again and reaches out to them via text messaging, phone calls and email.
ReUp picks who to contact first based on factors such as how long they've been stopped out, how many credits they have left to complete and their support network, though the company eventually works its way through the entire roster of stop-outs.
The company's 18 success coaches talk with interested students to learn why they left, work through issues that could prevent their return and support them once they reenroll. "It's not just good enough for us to bring a student back," Kubek said. "We need to bring back students who have a pathway and clarity around how they're going to get through to graduation."
ReUp gets paid through a revenue-share agreement for each semester a student is enrolled. So far, the company has recovered $25 million in tuition revenue by helping reenroll some 8,000 students across about 20 colleges through the spring 2019 semester. Those results have garnered the backing of investors, who recently poured $6 million into a Series A funding round meant to help ReUp expand its partnerships, EdSurge reported.
“It's not just good enough for us to bring a student back. We need to bring back students who have a pathway and clarity around how they're going to get through to graduation.”
Chief operating officer, ReUp Education
Kubek credits ReUp's early success to its blended use of automated messaging and human support coaches. "We really look to the technology to help us reach out to students at a large scale, engage with them on a regular basis and help manage rosters for coaches so (they) are doing things only humans can do," she said.
Preliminary reenrollment figures are not available, Kamath said.
However, the system has gleaned several findings about its stopped-out students through the effort. For one, Kamath said, students tend to be motivated by two things: wanting to finish what they started and having upward economic mobility.
"Social mobility is what we do," she said. "Being able to make students really change that notion of, 'I flunked out,' or 'I left school,' or 'I dropped out,' ... and flip that to say, 'I want to finish what I started, I want a better economic future, I want social mobility for my family,' is really important."
Meeting students where they are
While the right messages are critical, it's also important to examine why stopped-out students left college in the first place.
InsideTrack, a Portland, Oregon-based company that specializes in student coaching, has made reenrollment a key part of its services. Along with contacting and coaching stopped-out students through reentry, the company also advises colleges on areas they could improve to retain students.
For instance, in 2018,InsideTrack worked with UCLA Extension to reengage about 600 of the continuing education school's former students. About 260 responded to InsideTrack's messaging, and about 120 —or roughly 20%— eventually reenrolled.
Of those who didn't return, about one-third said they didn't have time for school because of work or family responsibilities. Others said they had planned to take time off school all along — a common reason for stopping out that more colleges should be aware of, said Dave Jarrat, senior vice president for strategic engagement and growth at InsideTrack.
"A lot of students at the end of the day just want that nudge. Like, 'OK, I’ve got to do it.' And somebody reaching out, 'This is a sign I've got to finish.'"
Director, The University of New Mexico's Graduation Project
"Most schools do not proactively engage their students around ... needing to take planned time off for a family vacation or a known increase in the intensity of their work," he said. "If they did, they'd be able to help these students prepare for their stop-out so they could go through it with intention and come back well-prepared."
It's also critical to keep in mind the obstacles specific student populations may encounter. For example, Jarrat said several international students ran into issues with their visas while attending UCLA Extension.
At Excelsior College, a private nonprofit online school in New York catering to working adults, officials looked to InsideTrack to figure out why some of their students who are veterans had stopped out. This population faces several unique struggles, as many are working adults and may have doubts over whether they're cut out for college, said Chris Johnson, director of Excelsior's Center for Military and Veteran Education.
"We work with these underserved populations to show them that, 'Yes, of course you could pursue higher education,'" he said.
After contacting roughly 400 to 500 stopped-out veterans, InsideTrack unearthed a surprising reason why some left Excelsior. Throughout the admissions process, Johnson said, the center gives veterans intensive advising about their benefits and enrollment and evaluates whether they're eligible to apply prior credits to a degree.
But once they're handed off to an academic advisor, they generally aren't contacted for one to three weeks. "Many veterans were saying that's too long," Johnson said.
To remedy the issue, Excelsior is forging closer ties between admissions officials and advisors to create a streamlined pathway for veterans — "more of a VIP process," as Johnson calls it.
The steps to reenrollment may present barriers as well. For instance, outdated policies may require students to bring cash to the registrar's office in person or to provide their high school transcripts for admission. "If you're 40 years old and you've been out of school for 20 years, going back and finding your high school transcript is often not easy," Kubek said.
Other common pitfalls are unclear transfer policies or "convoluted" websites, Kubek added. Having a point of contact to guide students through admissions forms, information on the website and the academic advising process can be critical.
"These are the types of things that can be really helpful in breaking down the barriers for students to help them figure out how to come back to school," Kubek said.
Getting creative to reenroll students
Although working with third-party providers focusing solely on reenrollment can be helpful, some institutions are turning toward unorthodox partners or employing new policies to reenroll their stopped-out students.
In 2014, the State University of New York (SUNY) teamed up with a federal loan servicer to send a message to its students who had stopped-out and still had debt. If they returned, SUNY told them, they could avoid defaulting on their student loans.
The campaign proved successful, according to a local media report. About 20% of those who received the messages in the program's first year reenrolled in college, with around 78% of that group doing so at a SUNY campus.
"Most schools do not proactively engage their students around ... needing to take planned time off for a family vacation or a known increase in the intensity of their work. If they did, they’d be able to help these students prepare for their stop-out."
Senior vice president for strategic engagement and growth, InsideTrack
Moreover, the effort helped the system recoup more than $8.7 million in tuition revenue, SUNY officials said during the 2019 American Association of Community Colleges' (AACC) conference.
"We don't have this unlimited pot of high school students," Patricia Thompson, assistant vice chancellor of student financial aid at SUNY, said at the conference. "We need to make sure we don't lose them somewhere in the process."
Other colleges have introduced financial incentives for returned students.
In 2016, for example, Colorado's Pueblo Community College introduced a plan that forgave students up to $1,000 in institutional debt if they reenrolled and finished one semester.More than 300 stopped-out students have since come back, bringing in nearly $350,000 in revenue, Pueblo officials said at the AACC conference.
Likewise, The University of New Mexico offers its reenrolled students up to $750 in tuition assistance each semester for two years through an initiative called The Graduation Project, which targets students who withdrew their senior year.
College officials use email blasts, mailing campaigns and phone calls to reach the students, directing them toward a website where they can fill out an interest form. From there, a student success specialist will guide them through the reenrollment process. In the fall of 2018, the effort helped reenroll roughly 120 students.
Corine Gonzales, director of The Graduation Project, echoed the reasons others gave for students leaving. Usually, life circumstances or financial obligations got in the way of students' studies and they never returned.
"Sometimes you'll get students who are one class away from graduating, but they just didn't finish," Gonzales said. "A lot of students at the end of the day just want that nudge. Like, 'OK, I've got to do it.' And somebody reaching out, 'This is a sign I've got to finish.'"
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