Technology, interaction can bring big retention gains to small colleges

Some small colleges have taken cues from large campuses struggling with retention rates.

Electronic lists detailing which students are in danger of dropping out of college have become a favorite of campus administrators trying to curtail falling retention rates. Classes teaching what students should expect during their higher education careers, however, are often the most critical piece of a student retention initiative.

A number of colleges and universities have created in-house retention software that alerts officials when a student is failing her classes or behind on tuition payments, and educational technology companies have for years marketed management systems and online programs that have, in many cases, helped steadily decrease the number of students quitting school less than halfway through their academic careers.

Colleges with open enrollment policies—allowing high school graduates to register and attend classes without specific qualifications—have fought for decades to ebb their relatively high dropout rates.

Western Iowa Tech Community College (WITCC) is one of those open-enrollment schools that have struggled to boost enrollment levels over the 5,000-student mark. Using a computer-based retention system made by Datatel, college officials sift through hundreds of retention warning reports based on students’ attendance, payment status, and number of dropped classes.

“As we all know with open enrollment, sometimes students are coming in the front door and going out the back,” said Janet Gill, the community college’s dean of enrollment services.

WITCC’s retention program spotted more than 600 students in danger of dropping out of school within the first six weeks of installing the system, she said.

The college saw retention improvements after it hired 10 part-time employees to come to campus and contact the students targeted by the computer-generated retention reports, said Juline Albert, WITCC’s dean of students.

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