Oct 11 2021

Colleges Innovate to Support At-Risk Students, Inside and Outside the Classroom

Customer relationship management systems, chatbots and data analytics help colleges provide timely, personalized assistance.

Student retention has been a priority for universities for years, but declining enrollments during the pandemic have led many institutions to amplify their efforts. More than ever, colleges are leveraging technology, support services and campus resources — including tutoring, advising, financial aid and mentorship — to help at-risk students stay in school, thrive academically and have enriching experiences.

In fact, 72 percent increased investments in student success technologies during the pandemic, according to a recent EDUCAUSE survey.

Colleges are paying special attention to first-generation and low-income students and to those from historically marginalized communities, using data analytics to identify students at risk of dropping out. 

“Data is so important because it tells you a story. It helps to find the hidden students who may fall through the gaps,” says Tadarrayl Starke, associate vice provost for student success at the University of Connecticut. “We want to use that to inform our decisions and then measure whether we are making a difference.” 

Student success technologies include customer relationship management (CRM) software; chatbots that provide 24/7 access to information, alerts and notifications; and health and wellness apps, says Kathe Pelletier, director of EDUCAUSE’s teaching and learning program.

Covering the Technology Basics for Student Success

Access to broadband and computers is, of course, an essential factor in student success. As the pandemic forced institutions to go fully or partially online, it put a spotlight on at-risk students, especially low-income students who lacked devices, computers and internet access. 

An EDUCAUSE survey from fall 2020 found that many students struggled to get reliable connectivity, including almost half of students living on campus. Nearly all students had access to computing devices, but not every student had a device with enough processing power or memory for their coursework, says Pelletier. 

In response, many institutions beefed up campus Wi-Fi and offered laptop lending programs. For example, UConn’s library and student support services both offered laptops to students, Starke says. Students could access free campus Wi-Fi, but UConn also provided off-campus students with information on service providers offering free and reduced-cost broadband during the pandemic. 

The university also developed online training modules to teach students how to use learning management systems and videoconferencing tools, such as Cisco Webex, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet

“It wasn’t just laptops but how to effectively use online tools for their classes,” Starke says. “We wanted to reduce reasons, technologywise, as  to why students couldn’t attend class.”

MORE ON EDTECH: Bridge the technology knowledge gap in higher ed.

Supporting Student Retention With Data-Informed Interventions

Data analytics is often central to student success initiatives. Many institutions have invested in CRM software that aggregates student data from across the student lifecycle, from admissions to alumni, and lets staff monitor student performance, communicate with students and track interactions. 

“CRM can enable a whole-picture view of students and is intended for multiple stakeholders to use, whether it’s the financial aid office, advisers or career counselors,” Pelletier says. “Through predictive analytics, they can intervene before a student missteps.” 

Universities use a variety of technologies to achieve this functionality. UConn developed an in-house software suite, Nexus, that integrates student data, provides advising and tutoring features, and uses early intervention to identify and communicate with at-risk students.

The University of Kentucky uses an SAP HANA enterprise data warehouse that gathers student data from 40 applications and databases. Then, with Tableau’s business intelligence and data visualization tool, staff can analyze the data and identify students who may need support. 

Tadarrayl Starke
Data is so important because it tells you a story. It helps to find the hidden students who may fall through the gaps.”

Tadarrayl Starke Associate Vice Provost for Student Success, University of Connecticut

To improve retention and graduation rates, some UK campus leaders have met weekly for the past five years to discuss real-time data on students. They focus on academic preparedness and performance, health and wellness, whether students have built a community on campus, and financial wellness, says Kirsten Turner, UK’s vice president for student success. UK has also designed interventions and programs, such as tutoring and financial aid.

Insights from the Tableau reports show broad trends, but staffers also drill down into the data to find specific students who need assistance, says Turner. 

“We’ve gotten pretty good at isolating out different groups of students based on the data that we use, and at how to provide the right interventions for those students,” she says. 

The next step is for UK’s strategic communications group to develop a strategy for outreach. The university has standardized on Salesforce CRM software for staff to text, email or call at-risk students. In the past, UK used separate systems for each of those communication channels, but staff now manage and track them through Salesforce. 

“It empowers the people who have the closest relationships with these students,” says Tyler Gayheart, UK’s executive director of enterprise CRM and Salesforce.

UK also uses predictive analytics to identify freshman students who need financial assistance and, to increase their likelihood of staying enrolled, provides them with additional funding, says Todd Brann, UK’s executive director of institutional research, analytics and decision support.

“That has really helped propel some of the retention improvements,” Brann says. 

RELATED: Georgia Tech researcher discusses how AI can improve student success and retention.

Chatbots Provide a Safe Space for Students to Ask Questions 

Universities use chatbots in several ways, but one of their biggest benefits is giving students 24/7 access to information while freeing staff from answering routine questions. 

Chatbots can also be a safe way to ask questions that students may be reluctant to ask in person — which may be especially valuable for first-generation students without a family safety net, says Pelletier.

“They may feel embarrassed to ask staff questions about detailed processes such as applying for financial aid,” she says. “We’ve seen that many students are more likely to bring their questions to the institution through a chatbot and get questions answered that way.” 

UK has piloted alerting software that sends students personalized messages from professors, such as encouragement to visit a learning center if they didn’t perform well on a test and kudos if they did well, says Gayheart. 

“Instructors liked it because it reduced their load to personalize the course for the student,” he says. “Students appreciate the extra attention from the instructors, particularly in large lecture courses.”

RELATED: Here are 3 ways to increase student engagement in online learning.

Community and Well-Being for First-Generation College Students

Many institutions are also taking a whole-person approach to student success, using health and wellness apps to support students wrestling with stress, anxiety and isolation caused by the pandemic, Pelletier says.

“Apps track workouts and provide meditation and stress management techniques,” she says. “Some serve as triage tools. They are self-guided and allow students to interact with an app and get the right level of care.”

To reduce isolation and create opportunities for remote students to socialize and build community, UConn added a component to its Nexus web app that lets students create study groups with their classmates for virtual or in-person meetings, Starke says. 

In 2020, UConn’s Division of Student Affairs also launched the U-Kindness website, which enables students to connect with peers and find virtual and in-person events. 

“Finding a community to connect with is so important, especially for first-generation students,” Starke says.

Illustration by: Kingsley Nebechi