Student retention is a big challenge for any educational institution. On average, over 30% of college students will not complete their first year, which affects resource allocation and hurts a school's bottom line. There are many contributing factors to these dropout rates including a student's academic self-confidence, institutional support, social involvement, and socioeconomic status. Some are easier for a school to manage than others.
Source: Act Institutional Data File 2014
Each school will need to craft their own retention programs and there is a lot of information out there to help, including best-of-breed software and retention consultants. But no matter how you approach retaining students, a good Student Information System (SIS) should be central to this process. SIS software can capture the vital data necessary for answering the most critical questions like...
- What is your school's historical retention and degree completion rate?
- Which students are most at-risk and why?
- Which programs are doing the best job of degree completion?
- How effective are your current retention programs?
- How do specific student indicators like campus involvement, class participation, and institutional support affect performance?
- What are the trends by program, semester and year?
Answering these questions is one component to the overall process. Ultimately it comes down to how proactive your school is with identifying at risk-students and solving their needs. Below I've outlined what to expect from a well-integrated information system to help increase your student retention rates.
A student information system serves little purpose if the information isn't accessible when it's needed. Real-time reports, dashboards or querying tools that are shareable and accessible throughout the organization is essential, since the responsibility for retention is distributed to many roles within the school. When examining student success factors, analyzing trends and determining what's working, good reporting tools ensure that you'll reach the best conclusions.
Central to any retention program is the baseline student assessment, which helps identify the high risk students before they even begin. A formula to calculate a dropout probability by looking at SAT/ACT scores, high school GPA and class rank, parent's education and income will be a good predictor for the high-risk students worth paying added attention to.
As the student progresses, this score can be adjusted in real-time by incorporating new information like attendance, grades and % of degree completion.
A strong SIS system should have a robust communication system that triggers alerts via emails or text messages in real-time for teachers, academic advisers, administrators and students. A simple example of an alert would be to notify the teacher and adviser when a student misses a class, assignment, or isn't meeting a certain grade.
Once an alert is generated it's also important to keep track of the steps necessary to correct the issue, and that's where communication management is essential. SIS software with a robust activity tracking system keeps tabs of all your interactions (by meeting, call, email or text ) with the student and enables future follow-up and/or next steps.
Part of the challenge for any teacher, advisor or administrator is managing the needs of so many students concurrently, so the ability to set individual reminders and record meeting notes, attach emails and text to their student record will just make the organization more proactive, efficient and smarter, which should increase overall student satisfaction.
Attendance tracking can be as simple as marking present or absent, but many programs now base course completion on the amount of time spent in class, also referred to as clock hours attendance. Using clock hours can be a much more accurate depiction of the student's attendance since it factors in tardiness or early exits which are further indicators of a student-at-risk.
Degree or Program Audits
It's important for a student to set up a plan for completing their degree and an SIS should be a flexible planning tool that details the student's degree requirements, how these requirements would be met and give them the ability to check their progress at any time.
Even more important is the ability for faculty and administrators to perform audits on the student population as a whole. This type of predictive audit is helpful to identify students who are falling behind in meeting their requirements on an institution-wide scale. This tool can also be used to proactively advise students in their scheduling process so that more at-risk students get the classes they need earlier in the process.
Financial Aid Module
Affordability is usually given by students as one of the top reasons they drop out. Although some studies show that finances are merely the tipping point, these need to be compared and measured against academic challenges or campus relationship issues, to further define the at-risk student. A fully integrated system that can correlate these factors and related issues is essential to a good retention program.
Student and Parent Portals
Giving students real-time access to their student profile will improve communication, save students time and improve their overall experience. The various online features for which students would expect real-time online access include course registration, grades, class schedules, academic audits, transcripts, billing statements and payments.
Involving parents can also be a critical piece to your school's retention process, so a FERPA compliant system that allows parents or guardians access to certain records can help identify problems before they become critical retention issues.
Learning Management Integration
A major component to a student's well-being is what happens in the classroom. While an SIS can handle all of your school's administrative needs it is not designed to manage the requirements of teaching a class. For that, you'll need a well-designed learning management system and one that provides the student with a seamless experience.
Ideally, you'll want the LMS talking to the SIS system so the student profile is complete and transparent throughout the organization. There can be an overlap in functionality between the two systems so it's important to determine the hand off and integration points. The data from an LMS is crucial for assessing a student's academic well-being in real-time so appropriate measure can be applied to those students falling behind before it's too late.
Increasing student retention levels is one of the most important initiatives for any educational organization. Given the many factors that contribute to student success and the volumes of data required to assess it, a robust, integrated, and fully utilized student information system should be a high priority at any institution.
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About the Author
Joe Stefaniak has been a leading expert for almost 30 years in the development and implementation of software solutions for higher education. His expertise is in helping colleges and schools streamline operations and manage information for better decision making through analysis and application of best practice software. He founded SCAN Business Systems in 1986. Its flagship product, Campus Café, has grown into a leading provider of educational student information systems. He holds a degree in Business Administration from Northeastern University.