Many higher education institutions continue to measure success through the lens of what is best for the traditional undergraduate student who enrolled for a face-to-face academic journey right out of high school. In many cases, conventional institutional metrics for success have been based on serving the needs of those students, placing a heavy emphasis on retention and graduation rates. However, this may not be the way of the future.
Increasingly, institutions are aiming to serve older learners who view college educations differently. For them, the college experience may not be about dorms and campus life; they may want an experience that is more transactionally based, exchanging money for courses that help them pursue their next promotion or find their next job. These students may not take a full course load and often take a semester off as they balance work, home, and educational needs. Institutions must think about how their retention tactics differ for these students.
The University of Mary, for example, supports roughly 3,800 students, of which half are traditional students and half are pursuing accelerated or distance programs. The university uses a variety of digital strategies specific to the different segments of its student body to support students as they strive to meet their academic goals. Let’s look at some of the lessons learned and unique strategies that the University of Mary applies to support retention and student success.
The early identification of students who are struggling and the creation of effective plans to help individual students succeed is critical to maintaining high retention and graduation rates. Because information can be siloed across different departments, institutions may miss collective warning signs about a student who is in trouble or struggling. For example, faculty may notice when a high-performing student begins having unexplained absences. Conversely, the resident advisor may notice when that student has been more withdrawn from student life. The financial aid office, on the other hand, may know that one of the student’s parents lost their job, leading to challenges with tuition payments. It is important to use a system and establish a process for bringing this information together. At the University of Mary, alerts from different departments are funneled into one system where an administrator can flag the alerts for the student’s advisor, who can step in and create a plan to help the student.
In some cases, nontraditional students view education as a means of advancing their professional careers. Often, adult learners balance their course loads from semester to semester differently. They may even take a semester off as they attend to other priorities in their lives. For higher education institutions, having a good retention system helps monitor these students’ education paths and keep them on track to reach their educational goals. For example, if a student tells their advisor they plan to take a semester off, an alert can be set up so the advisor knows how to contact the student before the next semester. This alert system can help ensure that a single-semester stop-out doesn’t turn into a multi-semester or permanent absence.
Even among similar age groups, students need different types of support. Like many institutions, the University of Mary offers a first-year experience course. Historically, high-performing high school students would not take the course because it was assumed that they were in a better position to handle the rigors of a college education than their classmates with more academic challenges. But data at the University of Mary showed that even high-performing students were struggling. As a result, the institution formed a committee and revamped its first-year experience program so all students learn the same basic competencies. However, the high performers are placed in different cohorts and have a different set of advisors.
Helping students achieve successful academic outcomes requires understanding student needs and creating systems that help students meet their goals. In many cases, identifying areas where students are struggling with the college experience and providing more support will enable schools to improve retention and graduation rates.
But the demographics of the student body are changing. Adult learners think of the university experience transactionally; many want to exchange the minimal amount of money and time they can to receive a degree. To help drive success for these students, institutions must focus on and monitor their needs to make sure that students are tracking towards their self-professed goals. The University of Mary recognized its student body is not monolithic and, subsequently, identified new student personas. Now the institution creates personalized interactions with its students across demographics, which has improved student satisfaction and retention.
The University of Mary is a trailblazer in recognizing the needs of the evolving student body and adapting strategies to best support them in their educational journey.
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