The Case for Being Intrusive
September 2010, Volume 5, Number 6
Editor's note: The STARS program featured in this month's issue of Innovation Showcase received the League's 2010 Innovation of the Year Award at Albany Technocal College. Congratulations to the STARS team!
By Pamela M. Heglar
Most college student affairs divisions have a variety of services in place to help retain students. The challenge we face is getting students, especially those who need our services most, to take advantage of those services. Thus, in recent years, the traditional “field of dreams” model of providing student retention services on campuses has yielded to a much more intrusive approach. The logic of the past was that if we provided a healthy menu of services and programs—a la cart programs—students would naturally select the needed services or at least take advantage of those programs and services recommended by trusted college personnel. Those were the days of high student attrition. The current competition for enrollment and increasing accountability measures make it more critical than ever to help students complete their studies and graduate. Today, colleges are much more likely to be involved in intrusive retention programs that select the student based on either risk factors or an early alert system and require their participation. Albany Technical College’s Student Tracking and Retention Services (STARS) Project is a case in point. STARS increased the college’s overall retention rate from 63 to 70 percent in one year by being highly intrusive.
ATC’s Retention Challenge
Albany Technical College (ATC), a two-year, public, postsecondary institution in Albany, Georgia, draws many of its students from one of the most economically depressed and disadvantaged regions in the country. In fact, in October 2009, Albany was named one of the Top Ten Poorest Cities in America by Forbes.com. Located in southwest Georgia, ATC serves a population that is primarily poor, affected by higher rates of unemployment and lower educational attainment levels than other parts of the state and the nation. Albany Technical College is the only public technical college in the southwest region and is the primary means of upward mobility for many residents. In its 50 years of service, the college has made great strides in addressing the educational attainment levels in the region. However, based on a study of 1,000 students during academic year 2008-09, it was evident that students with three characteristics or risk factors—low-income, first generation in college, and academic deficiencies—were almost twice as likely to drop out or fail to complete degrees compared to a cohort of students who were not economically disadvantaged. Thus, the STARS Project was developed to help disadvantaged students overcome obstacles that might impede or curtail their academic success and graduation.
The STARS Approach
Like most technical and community college students who attend commuter colleges, ATC students live very full lives. Students are short on time, with a large percentage employed full- or part-time, so giving them the option of participating in a retention program would not work. Instead, we placed all beginning students in STARS because our demographics indicated that more than 70 percent of ATC students exhibited at least two of the three risk factors. An unexpected benefit of this approach was avoiding stigmatization of a group of students identified as requiring special retention services. At the beginning of each term, STARS counselors visited the classrooms to introduce themselves and let the students know they would soon receive a call to schedule an individual meeting with their assigned counselor. Counselors met with each new student at least three times during their first term of enrollment. The three face-to-face meetings were spaced far enough apart for the students to experience college in bite-sized chunks, but before they became overly frustrated or discouraged. A specific curriculum was followed by the counselors in their sessions with the students to ensure that every student would be fortified with the information and support needed to successfully navigate that crucial first term of enrollment and all future terms as well.
The curriculum developed by STARS borrows ideas and strategies from the First Year Experience and other traditional retention programs, such as early alert, tracking and follow-up, mentoring, and strong faculty-counselor partnerships. Research indicates that many disadvantaged and nontraditional students lack information and resources for going to college because they are often the first in their families to attend. STARS counselors help students by not only repeating information that is typically provided during new student orientation—sometimes students need to hear it two or three times—but also by pointing out pitfalls and common problems to which students might fall prey, such as insufficient study time or running afoul of the satisfactory academic progress standard for financial aid. Perhaps most importantly, STARS provided the students a person to call whenever they encountered a challenge on campus.
Of course, not every student required the same amount of intrusive intervention; those who needed more were monitored and tracked for a longer period based on their needs. Because the counselors are assigned to work with new students based on academic programs, the students are assigned to the counselor for life, so to speak. Every term, STARS counselors are assigned new students. Our goal is for continuing students to have learned the skills and strategies to be successful in college, but they can and do revisit their STARS counselors when the need arises. Faculty members also refer students to the STARS counselors as needed. This approach works extremely well with health care programs such as nursing and dental assisting, where students form a natural learning community.
In addition to improving retention and enhancing academic and student affairs collaboration, STARS has brought about other positive results. Student use of other services, such as Services for Students with Disabilities and tutoring labs, has increased. In addition, one-on-one discussions with students about their academic concerns and issues has helped students understand the need to self-identify for special programs early in the academic term. Counselor referrals to a variety of special programs have increased significantly. Surveys and questionnaires used by STARS counselors have also helped the college collect information about incoming students that was not being captured elsewhere in the enrollment process. In turn, these new practices have helped ATC better meet students’ diverse needs.
STARS faces challenges, too. Some students have learned that there are no immediate negative consequences to missing counseling sessions. While we insist that the program is mandatory with no exceptions, we do not actually penalize the students who choose not to participate. So, going forward after two years, it is a bit harder to maintain student-counselor contacts. When students refuse to come in for meetings, counselors attempt to mentor them on the phone or via email. Still, we are convinced that the face-to-face counseling session is the best way to connect with students. We’ve also learned that 200 is the optimum student-to-counselor ratio to effectively implement this intensive, intrusive retention model. However, due to record enrollment at ATC in the past year, in some terms counselors have worked with 300 or more students.
Do we force-feed our students? Yes. Are we intrusive? Yes. Are we making a difference in the lives of our students? Absolutely!
Pamela M. Heglar is vice president for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management at Albany Technical College, Albany, Georgia.
Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.