Digital transformation on campus: Monitoring and retaining students


Digital transformation on campus: Monitoring and retaining students

How your college or university can improve the student experience through technology


Meeting enrollment goals is stressful, and interest in implementing processes and strategies to make hitting goals easier is high at many colleges and universities. This makes marketing and admissions an easy starting point for digital transformation, as discussed in the last edition of Career College Central


However, there is more to running a successful college or university than enrolling students. In fact, keeping students enrolled by focusing digital transformation on monitoring and retention practices is one of the best ways to improve the student experience and your bottom line. 


Not only do prospective students take your graduation rates into account when making a decision on where to go to school, but it costs significantly more for your institution to enroll a new student than to keep an existing one – some research suggests that anywhere from 5 to 25 times more.


According to The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, only 58% of U.S. college and university students graduate within six years, which translates to significant opportunity for improvement. 


Research shows students leave school for a mix of financial, academic and personal reasons – none of which has to be insurmountable. The problem is, many students, especially those who are in non-traditional groups and/or are first-generation college students, don’t always know that. They don’t know where to turn for help, understand what options are available to them, and assume they’d be better off dropping out. 


“The sheer culture shock of transitioning to full-time education can be a big one, but having reliable answers to common and uncommon questions can go a long way toward helping students feel at home,” says an InformationAge article about digital transformation in higher education. 

“If somebody is getting off the path, it’s much easier to make the correction if you discover the problem quickly,” says Timothy Renick, senior vice president for student success at Georgia State University.

With potentially thousands of students to monitor, however, digging into how each one of them is handling the transition to higher education the old-fashioned way can be overwhelming to faculty and advisors.

Kennesaw State University professor Chris Hutt agrees. After grades were posted for the spring semester, he used the filters in the university’s student-advising management system to find the students who had a GPA of 3.0 or higher but hadn’t registered for either of the next two terms. 

“I sent the students the following email,” he said. “‘Good morning — glad to see that the spring semester went well for you! I noticed you’re not enrolled for the summer or fall yet. Is there anything I can do to help with that?’ It went out to more than 4,000 students.”

“After I hit send, I stepped away from my desk for a meeting,” Hutt continued in a 2017 Chronicle of Higher Education article. “When I came back, a little over an hour later, more than 100 new emails awaited me. My first reaction was that there was something wrong on the server side — that was a lot of spam! But I soon realized that the responses were all legitimate. And: They. Kept. Coming.”

Over the next few days, Hutt received responses from about 1,300 students. He found that most of them responded to him with problems preventing them from enrolling – problems that were easy to fix. 

“Several students wrote that they were undeclared or had misdeclared their majors and didn’t know how to change it in the system,” he said. “It’s easy to do, but it was enough of a hurdle to stymie them. They essentially wrote, ‘I know what I want to do, I know what I want my major to be, but I don’t know who to talk to. I know where I want to go, but I don’t know how to get there.’”

Other students were on the verge of dropping out over issues with “nonideal course availability and difficulty signing up for a class because of confusion over prerequisites,” he said. “I was able to connect them with the right support.”

By taking matters into his own hands and giving students an outlet to voice their concerns, Professor Hutt was able to direct them to faculty who could help them solve their problems and get them registered for the next semesters. But the success of his efforts didn’t come without a bit of panic. Because he didn’t expect the volume of responses received and had no plan in place to direct students to the correct support automatically, he had to manually assist all 1,000+ students with a variety of nonlinear concerns.

Imagine, however, having a system in place that predicted these most common, easily-fixable concerns and routed students to the proper support systems with little faculty intervention. Or one that identified the most at-risk students at various points throughout the year and pointed them toward the resources and people available to help, before it was too late. 

That’s where digital transformation in the form of predictive analytics and automated student communication via app comes in. “With all the tools and technologies we have on campus now, we have a huge pile of data growing every minute,” says Nitin Madhok, director of business intelligence and advanced data analytics at Clemson University. “The problem is figuring out how to mine that data for insights we can use to improve the student experience.” 

Institutions across the country are working to determine which data-driven insights are the most impactful for their individual student populations and incorporating automated monitoring and mentoring efforts into their retention strategies, which research shows are focused on five key areas:

    • Improving freshman orientation and first-year seminars in new creative ways
    • Building a sense of belonging on campus, particularly among minority students who are less likely to feel connected
    • Redesigning first-year high-enrollment, lecture-heavy “weed out” courses to provide more support and different content delivery methods
    • Providing supplemental instruction including study sessions run by higher-level students


  • Using new technology to spot struggling or unhappy students earlier



These technologies are able to take numerous data points about a student and transform them into actionable, automated tactics for helping students feel more engaged, capable and determined to continue with their education. 

Technology in lieu of face-to-face communication may seem impersonal, but as digital natives, traditionally-aged college students are not only comfortable with automated communication, they (in many cases) prefer it.. 

“Students want easy-to-use applications,” says a recent Evolllution article about how student expectations are driving digital transformation on campuses across the country. “They also want applications that give them personalized advice. A new generation of student success solutions is helping students plan and track their academic success, and students are enthused about them.” 


A recent survey found that 48 percent of college students reported more satisfaction from using a mobile app to find information, rather than a university website, Campus Technology reports.


More specifically, EDUCAUSE research has found that 70 percent of students say degree audit tools that show progress toward their degree by outlining the requirements they have already  completed ‘very or extremely useful’, and 67 percent of students say degree planning or mapping tools that identify they courses they need to complete their degree ‘very or extremely useful’.


Colleges and universities around the country are working to give students what they want. According to a recent survey conducted by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, the Association for Institutional Research and EDUCAUSE, 89 percent of institutions say they’re investing in data analytics to boost student success.


The ways in which these technologies are implemented, and how institutions use them, however, varies. Many schools use data aggregation tools behind the scenes, and work to analyze and predict risk factors in student demographics, courseload, grades, attendance, financial records and more. Others, like Deakin University, use apps that act as digital assistants for students. The Deakin digital assistant can answer questions about financial aid, parking permits, campus living and more, in real time. 

Matthew Bernacki, assistant professor of educational psychology at UNLV, built a prediction model that establishes connections between students’ academic activities and their likely outcomes in an introductory Anatomy and Physiology course with a 50% fail rate. “That, in turn, informs an intervention strategy designed to help students when they need it most,” says EdTech. Timing is everything, Bernacki says:


“Typically, the goal is to intervene and get in front of students digitally before they start to perform poorly on tests,” says Bernacki. Then, students who are performing poorly receive an automated email the week before a test, that reminds them of the upcoming exam, introduces proven successful study habits, and directs them to course resources. 


“Students really are generating the same data that can inform their own learning practices, if we can provide them with some sort of intervention based upon it,” Bernacki says.


Southern Connecticut State University begins with a survey at new student orientation that asks, among other questions, if there is any reason the student might not come to campus when the semester starts, says Michael Ben-Avie, director of the Office of Assessment and Planning.

“Depending on students’ responses, Ben-Avie and his team may circulate red flags to the appropriate campus offices, marshalling the resources a student might need to follow through with attendance plans,” says an EdTech article

“The red flags and the full report are distributed within one day after an orientation session,” says Ben-Avie. “We demonstrate to the students that we care about them by responding immediately.”

In all instances, the most successful of these technologies take the data points that students and schools are producing automatically, analyzes them for individualized factors, and then uses that information to connect students with real people. As with marketing and enrollment, the goal of digital transformation in higher education isn’t necessarily to remove humans from the equation, but to get the right faculty in front of the right students when they are most needed. 


Join Career College Central in the next edition as we take a look at how digital transformation can impact your course offerings and instruction. 




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