Student engagement prevents dropouts. These schools prove it.


Student engagement prevents dropouts. These schools prove it.

3 proven student engagement strategies

One of my biggest disappointments as an advisor and faculty member was the number of students who “ghosted” me. I found that if I failed to give students the sense that I was personally invested in their success, they were likely to disappear when things got difficult—and for many community college students juggling more than just classes, things could often get difficult.

That’s why college leaders are constantly looking for new ways to engage students. If students know us and feel confident that they’ll receive the support they need, we have a better chance of helping them overcome barriers that stand in their way of graduation. Community colleges across the country are taking different approaches to student engagement. Three of our members shared with us data to show students are reaping the benefits of those engagement efforts.

1. Start student support well before students arrive on campus

In 2017, Mt. Hood Community College calculated that they were losing 68% of applicants before they could even register for classes. Prospective students had already expressed interest in the college, but somewhere between applying and starting classes, their path forward vanished. Stumped, administrators asked our team to “secret shop” their admissions process. We found that there was a long delay after the student applied before they heard whether they were accepted, they received emails filled with jargon, and next steps were often unclear or introduced after another long wait.

Is your enrollment process a game of Chutes and Ladders?

But when we think of community college students, we know they often make decisions about college close to the deadline. At Mt. Hood those late applicants would never make it into class. They’d be applicants that never became students.

With this knowledge, Mt. Hood was able to take their admissions process from a multi-day process down to just two hours. Students were then directed to Navigate to give them a customized enrollment path that reflected the students’ needs and interests. These changes gave students much earlier engagement with their college and a more personalized experience.

2. Help faculty close the loop on early alerts

At Cerro Coso, faculty said they wanted to support students with challenges and they felt like the early alerts they flagged went into a black hole. They created the alert and hoped it led to students receiving the resources they needed to get back on track, but they had no way of knowing what had happened after they raised the alert, which was especially upsetting if students never returned to class.

When Cerro Coso’s faculty started using Navigate, the change was immediate. While only about 50% of faculty created alerts in the past, by the end of the first semester using Navigate, 85% of Cerro Coso faculty had raised alerts on at-risk students. According to one staff member, faculty were able to take information that was spread across 10 screens in their SIS and have it consolidated into one. Plus, faculty members appreciated being able to close the loop on cases by seeing when their alert was resolved.

Faculty now report that early alerts are their favorite feature in Navigate and Cerro Coso reports that students who were flagged early in the term were 8% points more likely to complete their course than those who were flagged later.

3. Give students the resources to help themselves

At Danville Community College, administrators knew that if struggling students left campus without the tools the needed, it was unlikely they were going to return the next term. In fact, college leadership felt so strongly about student access to resources, they made it part of their QEP (Quality Enhancement Plan) for accreditation.

However, Danville’s leadership faced the same question many of us have asked ourselves:If students don’t expect to be able to rely on their campus for non-curricular support and students are likely to ghost us before we know there is a problem, how do we make sure they know we can offer resources to help?

Now, Danville adds an item to students’ to-do lists at key times in the semester to check out college resources. This proactive intervention alerts students to resources they may be unfamiliar with and allows them to tackle small concerns before they become barriers to completion. Their student success efforts led to a 6% increase in fall-to-fall retention in 2016-2017 and 2% more credentials earned.

My research has shown that disadvantaged students often feel like they don’t “fit” on a college campus and they look for signs to prove themselves right. But when the campus leaders, faculty, and staff focus on student engagement, we can increase the likelihood that they’ll see us as partners in their success and save “ghosting” for their dating lives.

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