Lessons Learned from a Student Retention Revamp at Syracuse


Lessons Learned from a Student Retention Revamp at Syracuse

Episode 133. January 10, 2023.

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Syracuse University’s Kal Srinivas joins EAB’s Andrina Musser to talk about how the technology, people, and processes changed at Syracuse to boost student retention efforts. The two discuss institutional barriers that had to be addressed, ways to get faculty on board, and the use of predictive analytics in facilitating proactive student outreach.

Dr. Srinivas also shares lessons learned and top tips for others looking to undertake a similar transformation at their institution.



0:00:11.4 S1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today we're joined by the Director for Student Retention at Syracuse University to talk about how their institution has revamped its approach to student retention. Our guests talk about the ways that the technology, people and processes had to change in order to make a meaningful difference. Give these folks a listen and enjoy.


0:00:41.1 Andrina Musser: Hello, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Andrina Musser and I'm a Strategic Leader, EAB. Today we're gonna take a deep dive in how one university is rethinking their approach to student success and retention efforts. With me to talk about this today is my friend and mentor, Dr. Kal Srinivas, the Director for Retention at Syracuse. As part of Syracuse's larger commitment for creating an inclusive student body, Kal works with all schools, colleges and divisions to further the ideals of supporting every student in achieving their goals, and while she may be the face of the Student Success Management tool, more importantly, she provides leadership and strategic direction for the dissipated co-curricular and functional units that she supports for student retention and success. Welcome to the program Kal.

0:01:29.2 Kal Srinivas: Thank you Andrina for inviting me. Happy New Year.

0:01:32.8 AM: Yeah, Happy New Year. Is it cold there?

0:01:35.3 KS: Just raining. Nothing like the usual winter.

0:01:40.3 AM: Very good, very good. So just as we... Before we jump in, can you sort of share with us a little bit more about the work that Syracuse has been doing and how Syracuse has been structured as it's approached its student's success or efforts over the years?

0:02:00.5 KS: Sure. Before I talk about the structure, I think it's important we understand what student success means to us first. Student success is a culture, it's an ethos, it's not a single function, a particular office or a specific initiative on campus, it's an all-university effort to create an advanced academic excellence in a university welcoming to all. We realize that collaboration across the entire university was key, we were then faced with the challenge of whose job is it any way to be responsible for student success, right? Everybody, somebody, anybody, or nobody?

0:02:43.2 KS: Therein lies the challenge. You guessed it. It depends on who you are. It's different for everyone. So for an institution, student success is all about degree completion, retention rates, graduation rates, the ability to bring in good faculty, as well as staff and students. Right? US News rankings are important. For students, they want to thrive, they want to excel, and they wanna have the time of their lives. For them sense of belonging is very important, they wanna graduate and be gainfully employed after graduation. For faculty, they want the students to learn and succeed in their courses, do some research, and really engage with them. For parents, they want their children to be happy, engaged, study hard and succeed, reduce student debt load, and not come back to live in their basements. So for our society, it's about helping the economy, building communities, and less reliance on public assistance.

0:03:45.7 AM: Now, I think that's great. And I think about this, it's like different personas, all part of the institutional culture. So with that in mind, how does technology fall into it.

0:03:58.9 KS: Interesting question. Even though technology has revolutionized and transformed higher education, we see technology as a path to a solution, not a driver of change. We avoid technology for technology's sake, trap. We let the academic goals or business goals drive the effort. As you know, COVID appended our business-as-usual playbook, and as with any initiative that involves implementing technology, it is equally important to manage change with people, process, technology, and politics and review all the underlying business processes. We have to keep reminding everyone that Starfish is only a tool, and it's not the tool that supports the student, it is the people using the tool. Our team's mantra right from day one has been it's not the technology, it's the people. We also believe that assessment comes first and then student success. So the incentive for us to conduct assessment is created by source of data-related pain and discomfort afforded by technological tools. So data creates urgency and is a catalyst for change, and we must be candid with ourselves. If folks don't feel the pain, change won't happen.

0:05:20.9 AM: Thank you, thank you. And I did want to certainly give some context to some of our listeners, like Student Success Management here at EAB, that means both Starfish and Navigate, and they're both used to support the people, the processes and the workflows for student success. I'm gonna... Kal, and I didn't plan on asking this, but as I think about... In the years that you've been at Syracuse, and I'm thinking personally when I was in college, I'm gonna date myself, 20 plus years ago, everything's changed. So when we think about perhaps how Syracuse end users as the people that we talked about in the beginning. How has the tech changed in this modernized campus that exist today?

0:06:13.5 KS: First thing, we recognize that the true undergraduate excellence can be achieved only when we pay attention to the whole student. Right? So as we launched the Orange Success Early Alert Initiative, which also involved overhauling the advising practices aimed at improving student success, we increased the training and support for our advisors, and we also coordinated all the advising across all schools and colleges, which were previously being done in silos and with the pen and paper method. You know, schools and colleges were supporting their students in their own way, and no one knew what the other was doing, and the students felt bounced around by different schools and colleges and offices, and they had to repeat the story a million times. And that was not something they were happy about. So now we know, especially after COVID, technology is here to stay and has become an integral part of our lives. Every day we are being asked to navigate the challenges in this digital world, we are having to rethink and make technological investments just to stay relevant, and then we are also being asked to change and adapt to the new demands of our students, be it flexibility in modes of instruction or removing silos from our data... Various data sources, right? At the same time, change is not something that comes easy for all, and as in academia, Zell Miller had once said it's easier to change the course of history than it is to change a history course.


0:07:53.6 AM: You're doing your one-liner. I think that's a good point to sort of transition. When we were gathered together back in November, you gave a stellar session on nudges, and you feel free to correct me, but I think early alerts was like earlier framing that has now transitioned into a new-ish concept, new-er, of the nudge, and I was wondering if you could share with our listeners a little bit more on your session on the nudges and the success that Syracuse has experienced.

0:08:25.7 KS: Absolutely. When we rolled out our early alert and connect system in 2015, for one thing, we did not roll it out as a retention tool, we rolled it out as a tool in a way to share more and better information with all the decision makers across campus, and we referred to faculty feedback on course performance as early alerts. But slowly, we started noticing that if a student were to receive five alerts from professors during mid-term, I mean that carries a lot of negative connotation. Right? But if you started referring to them as nudges, it was a lot easier for us to then get buy-in from our students. Remember these students live in the Fitbit generation, they're constantly being nudged to walk, to stand up, to do this, to do that, and the students understand and respond appropriately to nudges. Of course, some of them are continuing to ignore us, but those are the few then we have to make a concerted effort to reach out to. And the nudge can be very powerful if we are strategic about the population we want to impact. We can't just send a nudge to a whole 20,000 students. No, it has to be very strategic, very intentional.

0:09:45.9 KS: We must be very clear as to what behavior change we are expecting when the student gets the nudge. Most importantly, we need to understand the scope and the outcome we are aspiring for. We always hear that students don't read emails. Personally, when I talk to the students in my class, I know that they read it, but they choose not to respond because they have read what I have told them, but they just decided not to respond. So a nudge then becomes a small bite, sound bite, that then they feel that they can easily respond to instead of an email. And then at our institution, we use nudges in the form of SMS, text, emails, phone calls, outreach through social media, and the design of the nudge is important for it to have the desired effect.

0:10:39.2 KS: For example, an attendance nudge can gently steer the student toward showing up to class or a low quiz score can lead students to make better choices with their time and decide whether to go for a tutoring session or not. Some examples. One quick example I have is one faculty member raised a flag saying that the student had not come to the class on Thursday and then did not show up for dinner on Sunday, so she was a bit concerned. So when we routed that flag to the resident director and the resident director had the resident advisor reach out to the student, we found out that the student has scalded her feet and could not walk, and that's why she had not gone out of her room. So these nudges are so powerful if the right people in the positions are doing what needs to be done with those nudges.

0:11:37.1 AM: So Kal, I just wanna pause you there, something really resonated with me. Because you focused in on the people in that example. Yes, there was tech and yes, it did its thing, but it was the people who made the difference, and I've been working with Starfish for over 10 years, and it's still the people and the stories that mean the most to me, and I appreciate the one that you shared. Another example, if I'm just to belabor this 'cause it's so impressive to me, going back to when we were in fall of 2020, that crazy semester, and you used the SMS, you texted students around compliance and had some really impressive results. If you could just touch on that a little bit for our listeners.

0:12:21.6 KS: Yeah, during COVID, we had a very intricate system in place in terms of testing our students. So the students had received five emails: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and most of those emails had been ignored when the email said that you have to be tested by Friday morning or your Blackboard access is going to be removed. And then we used Orange Success as a vehicle to send a text message where we send students, all the students who had received emails that, "Okay, Blackboard connection will be disconnected if not tested today." And we had about 400 students show up at the stadium to be tested so much so that they called, Hopeton Smalling, my colleague, and said, "You need to stop this, we cannot handle this." So it was very impactful. And also, we had a time when we had just piloted the intake form for our SummerStart students, and we shared the link for the intake form through the SMS text, and we had out of 132 students, 130 students completed the intake survey, and two of them had to be just convinced a little bit more to complete it. So it's very effective if done in the right way with the right population.

0:13:53.1 AM: No, thank you. And I think that aligns to find new America's best practices on texting and nudging, is you know what behavior you want, and you target the behavior and you also make it easy for the student to take action. And you did that by adding the link for them to complete that form or by directing them to the stadium for the testing. I think it was really well designed, and I do consider Syracuse one of the leaders in the space with Starfish in using... Not texting at the nudge. I hope my memory is serving me right, but I remember a slide from your presentation and it said something shitty effective, and this is a quote, "Predictive analytics can save higher end, really... " Right? I was curious if you could share a little bit more context for that. Because I think it's powerful.

0:14:55.6 KS: Yeah, Syracuse University has been using our home-grown StaySU tool. And we were slowly trying to roll that out, but then we realized we were having some trouble gaining some momentum there. But then we came across this quote where NACUBO had partnered with AIR and EDUCAUSE, to craft a statement and a very nice written article saying that "Analytics can save Higher Education, Really"... And that when shared with everybody created a sense of urgency and the use of analytics. Now higher education is under pressure all the time, to improve student incomes. We must navigate the challenges of declining student enrollment trends. Focus on student outcomes, answer questions about the value of a degree. Answer questions about the concerns of equity, but at Syracuse University, we decided that our campus-wide collaboration had already ignited the analytics endeavors and ensured its long-term use as a part of the data-informed institutional culture.

0:16:07.3 KS: Many campuses struggle with using statistical probabilities to act on students, right? Now we feel... But at Syracuse, we feel that our position statement on how our tools are intended to be used helps ensure that the tools we provide improve student success by allowing us to proactively point them to resources that they may not be aware that are available on campus. So that's important, and if they don't take advantage of those resources, then we are not gonna help them succeed. And New America had laid out the framework for us, so it was very easy for us to address possible issues surrounding the use of institutional data. And using data ethically is complex, there is no magical formula. So we did a lot of training on the appropriate and the inappropriate uses of either the retention score or any other score that was available to us in the analytics platform tool. And we continue to safeguard the student and institutional data and extensive training was provided to ensure that the advising leaders understand the results of the predictive analytics are just snapshots of a student's experience at a given time and can change.

0:17:34.6 AM: Now, thank you. And to me, I do believe that the analytics in higher ed, they are just another tool in the tool kit, right? The same as we even consider a flag or something else to be a tool, and just because there is a statistical model saying that this could happen, or providing a numerical data point that doesn't mean it's a guarantee that this is a way of identifying where to look so that you can get to the root of the problem. 'Cause it is... Always goes back to the people.

0:18:06.0 KS: Yes.

0:18:10.1 AM: So sort of shifting at this point, we know how important it is to remove the institutional barriers to student success, and yet over the years, it's never ceased to amaze me how slow these processes can be for some institutions, to they resolve these administrative hurdles that could be a lot simpler, so I'm hoping you could perhaps share some examples of what Syracuse has done to address some of these like hurdles that could slow students down.

0:18:45.9 KS: I'm not sure about the word hurdles, but holds in the system are a way to hold students accountable. Whatever the reason is, whether it's an advising hold or a bursar hold, but sometimes these holds do become obstacles. Yes. For example, holds are placed on student registrations by a variety of offices, with a range of impact. So typically students are most impacted by holds when they are not allowed to register for the next semester. Now, when that happens, we also give students the information of who to contact and how to get the hold removed.

0:19:25.7 KS: For example, we work very closely with the Registrar's Office, with the Bursar's office, during registration time to see if the Bursar's office can temporarily lift a hold so that the student can register and then the hold can be put back on. As I mentioned earlier, with the renewed focus on improving retention and graduation rates, we work very closely with academic affairs, student experience, business side of the house and look at all the underlying processes and talk to students on how to get there, get off their holds. It's important not only to look at students at risk, but it's also very important to look at, at risk processes that are hindering our students from succeeding.

0:20:15.1 AM: Now, thank you. I think that's a great example. So throughout our conversation, another theme that I think has been an undercurrent has been how Syracuse has been able to develop the student engagement, both with technology, but also with the people. Right? And so when I think about like how did you do this? You have thousands, tens of thousands of students, how did you first get them to approach the tech and then to help them feel more engaged and supported?

0:20:51.6 KS: That's a very complex question, right? 20,000+ though.

0:20:57.2 AM: A student.


0:20:57.9 KS: So one thing we have to understand, what does the student's journey to our university look like. The highway analogy fits very well, because students come from private schools, public schools, different countries, some from accelerated programs, some traditional, some first generation and interstates with varying speeds into our university. They come with different preparations, different majors, different ethnicities, different socio-economic status. All very complex, right? Now, also knowing that, now this is what predictive analytics helps us with, we also have to understand who our students are today and how has the world changed for which we are preparing them for? Very important to know how the world has changed, not only how the students have changed.

0:21:46.1 KS: So we look at how yesterday people were when they went to work, they worked for a large company, they were one job in their life. Stay in their hometown, well-paying jobs, even in low-skill professions, and then mostly in-person jobs. In-person, studying and jobs, whereas today the students are working for smaller companies with multiple jobs, moved from work or career, they have low-paying jobs in low-skilled professions, cut throat international competition, and then they have virtual options. So we have to take all that into consideration when we talk about student engagement. We look at retention, student success by sub-population, and that is where analytics can play a big role.

0:22:33.8 KS: We try to meet the student from the entry point to the departure, to provide the student experience that we say Create the Unsurpassed Student Experience, that is what CUSE stands for. We look at pre-college entry characteristics, what their behaviors are, that would help or hinder them from succeeding, and then what some of the institutional conditions are, and examining both students and risk and at risk processes, like I mentioned before. Remember no one person initiative can engage 20,000 students, we must remember there is no Hail Mary pass to touch down when it comes to retention and student success. It's down after down after down, and it is the cumulative effect of all these multiple initiatives on campus that improve the student engagement.

0:23:25.7 AM: Thank you. And that sort of gives me a flashback to a chatting with a mutual friend of ours, Bernie Savarese, who reference that the students who need you most may not be the students who come to you. Which is where I think that to your point of predictive analytics and all the different data points that help you to engage and support the students to identify which students to then reach out to. One group that we've mentioned, but not really dug into is faculty. And we know that they do more than just teach classes or faculty advise. I'm wondering, since Syracuse does have really great faculty adoption, if you could share some lessons learned on how to build bridges with this group who sometimes student success is not their primary focus, or at least not those words.

0:24:19.1 KS: Oh, of course, they do a lot more than teach. They play a critical role in shaping the student experience within the classroom, they are the decision makers for curriculum when it comes to designing their courses, and the health advisors have an advanced advising session by providing course feedback, they mentor students, they work closely with other units on campus to refer students to appropriate resources, they counsel them and coach students on how to navigate the system. I could go on and on, but like I said, they are integral to student success. We involved faculty right from the get-go while implementing Orange Success in our pilot and convened the Faculty Advisory Group to guide us through the different phases of implementation. They were critical in telling us what missteps we were having and what to do to engage the faculty. We share with them on a semester-by-semester basis the impact that their flags have on student success and how their participation in the mid-semester progress reports has lowered the DWFs at our institution, and how mid-semester progress reports help our students bounce back if they have wavered from their journey.

0:25:44.3 AM: So I'm thinking like, 'cause you have so much expertise and experience in this domain, but if you had five minutes to share lessons that you've learned or best aspects of advice for how to turbo charge an institution's own efforts at retention in student success, what might you share?

0:26:07.7 KS: For one thing I'd be very arrogant if you thought I was an expert, if I thought I was an expert.

0:26:12.4 AM: I think you're an expert. I'm not... Because I know you.


0:26:15.3 KS: Yeah, it is so challenging because there's a myriad of reasons why students leave the institutions or why they don't succeed, and why someone feels a sense of belonging and someone doesn't. But the one thing I would focus on is that everybody that works at an institution is a retentioneer. Everybody, everything that they do with the student reflects the experience that the student has faced and adds to their sense of belonging, and changing the culture is key. Changing the culture with Orange Success was sharing, being transparent, sharing the information, getting all the people to understand what the system was, how the information was in one information hub and how everybody could use it. And as Peter Drucker had said, I don't know, decades ago, culture is not one aspect of the game, it is the game. And we approached it with a one-university perspective, don't try to boil the ocean. That's the one thing our CIO told us. Don't try to customize it and don't try to boil the ocean. So use it, this is what we have, this is what we're gonna work with and change the underlying business processes, and unless it's something that's a stopper, then come to us and we'll work with you on it.

0:27:37.7 KS: And then one other thing is learn from your past successes and sometimes better yet from your failures, because you learn more from when you fail than when you succeed. And then once again, promote transparency, share the data back with the users, tell them what the impact is. And we are in a new era of sharing and accountability, and that always helps promote your initiative on campus. And then one challenge that we continue to face is the lack of integration of our systems and that we have to navigate with caution.

0:28:16.1 AM: I remember one of the first times I got to see you speak. You said something very similar, but it stuck with me and I just jotted it down again. Do not let perfect get in the way of good, and I think you then dove-tailed that with, "Do not forgo a Camry because you want a Lexus."

0:28:33.6 KS: Absolutely.

0:28:35.6 AM: And it's stuck with me all of these years.


0:28:39.9 KS: So true, so true, because we cannot be everything to every student, but if we get the right information in the hands of people who are helping the students make the decision, which is what this whole early alert system is all about, then we are good to go.

0:29:00.9 AM: I think that's a good way to end it. I know that we could talk about this for hours. In fact, we have talked about this for hours, but I do wanna be respectful of your time. And Kal, thank you for joining today. I thank our listeners for joining and spending their time with us, and yeah, I hope everyone have a wonderful rest of their day.

0:29:22.4 KS: Thank you, Andrina. This was great talking to you. It didn't feel like a podcast even because we have so many conversations about retention and student success over the years. Thank you very much for giving me this opportunity.

0:29:35.7 AM: Thank you.


0:29:43.0 S1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when we take a look at how to recruit and serve the needs of military students, both retired and active duty. Until then, thank you for your time.


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