Home Student Retention Re-thinking Retention: Institutions and Innovators at Work
Re-thinking Retention: Institutions and Innovators at Work

Re-thinking Retention: Institutions and Innovators at Work


By Timothy Gilbert

This isn’t news, the elephant in the room of American post-secondary education is student retention. Across all Carnegie classifications, one in three first-year students don’t make it to sophomore year, according to U.S. News & World Reports. Reasons run the gamut from lack of commitment to college, to lack of academic readiness, money or the feeling of fitting in.

Conventional wisdom and rankings by U.S. News suggest liberal arts colleges would demonstrate the strongest freshman-to-sophomore retention. Nearly 99 percent of Amherst College’s freshman roll into sophomore status.

Just 47 schools down the list, however, attrition of 11 percent or more casts its shadow on America’s medallion (and costly) liberal arts colleges.

“We are ‘selling’ what we think they need,” reports Lucie Lapovsky in her study, The Economic Challenges of Liberal Arts Colleges, “but not necessarily what these students want.” While research like Lapovsky’s led institutions to re-direct budgets into career services and experiential learning, it landed them squarely into competition with public and for-profit schools, who promise real-world outcomes.

Changing an institution’s model, as liberal arts colleges have found, impacts not only academic and administrative culture, but tuition discounts and operating costs. Processes and policies, and the software and systems to drive and track them, come at a price.

Out with the old
Dan Miller’s company, Advantiv, maintains an ever-growing database of software vendors that itemizes each and every feature of their software. Advantiv’s customers then use its portal, to help committees collaborate, narrow and prioritize what they need from a system – before diving into software demonstrations, RFPs, contracts, implementations – and the inevitable cultural shock and awe that follows.

Miller indicates changing or integrating systems can be a six- or seven-figure proposition before accounting for internal time and cost. But investments in any technology mean nothing, advises Miller, if it only serves to make more efficient a broken model.

“My question is,” Miller observes, “how effective can a retention system be if the student is unmotivated? An old model of education, taught by people that aren’t practitioners, is dead on arrival. Millennials walk in, they say, ‘This is stupid.’ Millennials have zero tolerance for stupid.”

Miller echoes the sentiments of change agents across the sector, from Harvard Business School guru, Clayton Christiansen to Dr. Ronald Paige, former Secretary of Education. Miller goes a step further, suggesting retention improvement is not about reforming admissions or beefing up the career center.

“It takes a village. They need to have an integrated approach to deal with the loosening of relationships with students.”

Coined phrases about retention, such as early alert, student engagement and student success, have emerged as a kind of Holy Grail for higher education. Regulatory, legislative and other pressures are compelling chancellors and presidents to at least check the box, saying they have a plan.

Enter stage left: Technology companies with differing visions as to what and how to execute the quest.

Two camps are re-thinking retention
Still in its infancy as a product category, retention-focused technologies may represent the fastest-growing category in postsecondary software and services. Vendors mostly hail from two corners: Well-entrenched student information systems (SIS) and CRM providers, and startups that are bootstrapping to introduce anything from apps to comprehensive platforms.

Philosophically, two camps have emerged. One looks to big data, pulling what they suspect are the key indicators that flag students seeming prone to defect. Starfish Solutions, recently acquired by Hobsons, which is best-known for their admissions marketing and CRM, focused on academic data from the learning management system (LMS). Blackboard has introduced ‘Retention Center’ and has been piloting its virtues at both traditional and for-profit institutions. Grades, participation or attendance are the big data camp’s 1,000 points of light.

Another, Noel-Levitz, is considered the IBM for crystal ball work in not-for-profit class. Its comprehensive approach would seem to make their final reports’ conclusions just that: Conclusive. ZIP codes, demographics, employment trends, peer institution data – all of these and more are distilled, using Noel-Levitz’s proprietary software engines and consulting know-how. Institutions are presented charts, graphs, force-rankings and other intel, boiling it all down to advise an institution what to project for current programs or which new ones to launch.

Camp 1: Big Data Camp 2: Boots on Ground
www.civitaslearning.com www.campusesp.com
www.fideliseducation.com www.campusmanagement.com
www.parframework.org www.edtechassociates.com
www.ruffalonl.com (Noel-Levitz) www.hobsons.com

Keep it simple
The second camp in this new retention solutions category also leans heavily on data, but favors the KISS principle. Keep it simple and actionable, create “early alerts” using modest datasets from one to three enterprise systems. Perhaps, add social listening, such as Facebook or the school’s housing personnel or instructors, to identify the at-risk student.

“In almost every case,” shares Renee Pacini of Campus Management, “when talking to institutions that recognize the problem, 90 percent of the time they know their students. They know the populations they need to watch and what the indicators are.”

Pacini spearheads Campus Management’s new Retention 360 offering, a mix of CRM, business intelligence analytics, and an on-call retention management consultant to help make sense of it all.

“Number one, they’re looking to validate it,” Pacini says of institutional leaders. “Number two, they need an action-oriented plan. So then, ‘What’s the plan’ is the question, once we validate what the data is telling us?”

Crawl, walk, run
This second camp’s pragmatism also takes a crawl-walk-run approach. They view the problem not so much as identifying the at-risk student, but enabling the creation of a retention-focused culture.

Pacini terms what Campus Management does as “retention as a service.” The goal is to gain consensus – then get people up and running, so they feel they’re getting something done. “Whatever solution you choose,” Pacini shares, “it should be able to integrate into what the faculty and other staff use every day. That enables them to ping someone or escalate to an intervention.”

Outfits like Campus Management, or newcomers CampusESP and Education Technology Associates, promise to enable people on the front lines to hyper-automate communications to at-risk groups or individuals. Then, they configure systematic outreach, depending upon the scenario – and how (or if) the student responds.

“It is about proactive engagement with email blasts, phone calls, a virtual student union,” says Cynthia Pascal, who leads the newest retention initiative for Northern Virginia Community College’s Extended Learning Institute. Pascal’s group is a bona fide, fully funded department, formed by chancellor, Glenn DuBois. The challenge? Triple graduation rates by 2021. Pascal’s first order of business is improving connections in the digital realm across NOVA’s 23,000 online students.

“We started our retention effort with academic success coaches and an early alert program. We’ve been adding webinars, more online resources, a knowledge base and other ideas, that make resources more visible to staff, faculty and students. My role is to look systematically at what works and what doesn’t.”

NOVA has partnered with Education Technology Associates to put wheels on this classic “fail fast, fail often” approach to getting to its goal. Still in its pilot phases, as are many or most of the providers from the second camp, Education Technology Associates’ job is to help Pascal bring order, reduce or hold steady instructor workloads, and add-in academic flags from NOVA’s other systems.

Most importantly, from Pascal’s high-level view, the job is to embed retention into systems that staff and instructors already use. Rather than logging into yet another system, the concept is to come in under the radar, gradually permeating NOVA constituents with a retention, “we care” mindset.

Kevin Hesler, chief operating officer for Education Technology Associates, equates his company’s ‘Connected Campus’ brand as providing students “a vitamin rather than a pain pill.”

“We have to ensure that students have intuitive access to all the services and resources the institution has to offer,” Hesler states. “You’re a student, you’re in the middle of a crisis, personal or financial. You won’t have the presence of mind to search around portals for help.” It can come down to knowing there’s “that one button,” says Hesler.

Engaging online students is the most challenging aspect. Hesler points out, “There’s no Starbucks online.” Like Pacini and his other competitors, Hesler’s message is to get something up and running that stays ahead of the problem – rather than triage when students are already in the red zone.

“Orientation is a key time,” says Hesler. “Getting them signed into the learning management system, then all these other systems, while bombarding them with emails from IT, the bursar and so on. This is frustrating them out of the gate, a common point of failure.”

Theory in practice
Whether they know it or not, when it comes to online and blended populations, both camps in the retention space echo theories of retention dating back to Vincent Tinto, distinguished professor at Syracuse University. Tinto developed and published the first formulaic approach to project retention.

Tinto’s 3 Principles for Retention
1. Institutional commitment to students
Effective retention programs are committed to the students they serve. They put student welfare ahead of other institutional goals.
2. Educational commitment
Effective retention programs are first and foremost committed to the education of all, not just some, of their students.
3. Social and intellectual community
Effective retention programs are committed to the development of supportive social and educational communities in which all students are integrated as competent members.

Dr. Wallace Boston, Jr., president and CEO of American Public University System, is a devotee to Tinto’s fundamentals. After lengthy and costly testing and investment, APUS announced on a recent quarterly call with its investors, that his online university has achieved quantifiable retention gains.

Boston’s approach combines vendors from both camps, incorporating heavy lifting via predictive analytics from the first camp, and user-friendly, actionable access to communicate and engage students from the second camp.

“We have 39,000 students on it now,” Boston says of APUS’s implementations, “so we rolled it out on volunteer basis, then to new students. Next, we’ll get to returning students. We need to have our advising and career counseling rock solid first.”

Using this crawl, walk, run method, APUS will next introduce mentoring, when Boston feels assured APUS has any staff and technology gaps well-resourced and trained.

“If our average faculty teaches four sections with 40 to 80 students, they’re not going to notice any one student shrinking in quality,” Boston observes. “It would take too much manual effort.”

Towards that end, APUS partnered with Civitas, which churns big data and serves up the student at risk instantly, in a way that faculty can do something about it without combing through the learning management system or spreadsheets.

“This crosses all three major cornerstones of Tinto’s theory,” explains Boston. “We have engagement in the online world along the lines of his themes about campuses.”

Among APUS’s investments in retention is Fidelis.

“We invested in Fidelis, which is a ‘LRM’ – learning relationship management. It is designed to look and feel like Facebook, so there’s a degree map, to counsel the student on the next courses to take. It displays on a wall, not on paper or an email. You can post if you’re unhappy with your trajectory, and likewise, we can watch and post back.”

No-shows in retention money ball
Time being, the emerging category of retention solutions seems thus far to be a David and Goliath contest.

Boston’s portfolio leverages both camps, but the players largely have in common an early stage or even beta-level offering.

If you follow the money, it would seem the category is predominantly organic or bootstrap. Campus Management and Ellucian, both SIS leaders, are essentially expanding upon their CRM functionalities, tailoring solutions for retention. Hobsons is in acquisition mode, snapping up Starfish and PAR. Fidelis is purportedly in its first round of funding.

Where did all the venture capitalists go?

Bullish in 2015 on the education sector, venture capital has since elected a wait-and-watch mode. Leaders like GSV Capital, Kapor Capital and Learn Capital continuously hunt and peck. But on the whole, investments are down, favoring K12-sector apps, such as niche packages that simplify grading or back office processes. Other investment is doubling down on more mature models, like Udemy and Coursera.

Too early to tell would seem to be the outsider’s take on retention as a product category. Easily confused with what a CRM or an LMS “should be doing,” both investors and the institutions themselves seem to be satisfied, time being, to dip a toe in the water of retention technologies.

“I went to The Chronicle for Higher Education’s jobs section,” relates Pacini from Campus Management, “and typed ‘retention’ and ‘student success.’ You get thousands of hits. But when you look for these in job titles, those hits drop to maybe a few hundred. They make retention part of the job description. But not their job.”


Timothy Gilbert consults with institutions and educational technology organizations. Mr. Gilbert has served the education sector more than 15 years, including Campus Management Corp., Bryant & Stratton Colleges, IBM, Johns Hopkins Medicine, Kaplan, Inc., foundations, and venture and private equity firms. For more information: http://www.linkedin.com/in/timgilbert

Disclosure Statement: Mr. Gilbert is a shareholder in the privately-held Campus Management Corp. Notes in their entirety from Mr. Gilbert’s interview with Ms. Pacini are available upon request. Email timothy.scott.gilbert@gmail.com. Mr. Gilbert represents having taken an unbiased, journalistic approach to this article and its subject matter, interviewing persons and organizations having demonstrated substantive and relevant knowledge and newsworthiness.

Contact Information: Timothy Gilbert // 561-676-2378 (Cell) // timothy.scott.gilbert@gmail.com // http://www.linkedin.com/in/timgilbert



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