20 min read

Episode 18—College Access and Student Retention


In the coming years, it will be imperative that colleges become proficient at not just recruiting students, but also retaining them until completion of their desired degree. Savvy enrollment managers are looking ahead at the shrinking number of high school graduates, often called the demographic cliff, and are making strategic plans to ensure their institution is set up to provide every student the opportunity to matriculate and succeed

. On today's Enrollment Edge, Jay talks with Alex Leader, Founder and CEO of Aviso Retentionabout how colleges can collect the right data, translate that data into actionable plans, and implement a Student Success model across the campus. Jay and Alex also delve into the subject of the use of standardized testing and other tools that are used to predict student success in college.

Episode Transcript

[00:00:00] Jay Fedje: Welcome to the Enrollment Edge Podcast for college enrollment and marketing leaders. I'm your host Jay Fedje, Enrollment Edge is sponsored by enrollmentFUEL, a trusted full-service student search and marketing partner to colleges and universities across the country. If you'd like to learn more about enrollment tool services, or you have questions about today's episode, we've included a link to our website in the show notes. You can also email us at edge@enrollmentfuel.com. We'd love to hear what you think. If you can, help us by subscribing to our podcast, sharing it with your friends and leaving a five-star review on Apple podcasts.

[00:00:30] Jay Fedje: On today's Enrollment Edge. I have a conversation with Alex Leader, Founder and CEO of Aviso Retention, Alex is an advocate and visionary for student retention and student success. In the coming years, it will be imperative that colleges become proficient at not just recruiting students, but also retaining them through completion to their desired degree. Savvy enrollment managers are looking ahead at the shrinking number of high school graduates often called the demographic cliff and making strategic plans to ensure their institution is set up to provide every student the opportunity to matriculate and succeed. In our conversation we'll talk about how colleges should be collecting the right data, translating that data into actionable plans and implementing a student success model across the campus. We'll also delve into the hot topic of standardized tests, the sweeping trend of colleges moving to test optional and the use of other tools that predict student success in college. Today, we're talking to Alex Leader Founder and CEO of Aviso Retention, and we've got a number of things I think that are going to be fascinating to talk about today in the area of student success and retention, and we're going to dive in, Alex, welcome to the program.

[00:01:13] Alex Leader: Thank you, Jay. Thanks for having me, I appreciate it.

[00:01:15] Jay Fedje: Absolutely, you and I connected some time ago, fascinating conversation that we had. I hope we have as equally a fascinating conversation today, but tell me a little bit about yourself, about the company and the services you provide. I want to give you that moment that sets the stage for what we're going to talk about.

[00:01:33] Alex Leader: Yeah, of course. Thanks again, Jay. So, my name is Alex Leader, and as you mentioned, I'm the founder and CEO here at Aviso Retention. I started the company back in 2012, really focusing in our entire focus has always been on what we call and what we term underserved institutions and so by underserved institutions we mean those institutions that are typically two year public institutions four year privates that are oftentimes they're greatly focused of course, on the student experience and student retention, but oftentimes don't have the financial resources, the people resources the resources to really go out to a third party in terms of a vendor or implore other best practices within their institution, because there's simply trying to keep up with the demand of students and their support, and so I created this company around really trying to change that dynamic, really focused on this underserved institution population and building a company the right way where we could offer a great software platform that helps these institutions identify incoming students and where they may be facing challenges, and also be able to scale their efforts because in that underserved population, that's often one of the greatest challenges and like I said, we started this in 2012. We work with institutions across the country, really focused on student success, both from the software perspective, but also from the people in the process perspective as well.

[00:03:00] Jay Fedje: One of the things that we talked about in our first conversation was the idea of retention, the idea of student success and in many ways the idea of retention or the concept of the strategic planning for retention is minimal, we're just trying to get a student to the next stage. Student success is different from that, student success is something more significant and, in many respects, more difficult, isn't that, right?

[00:03:27] Alex Leader: That is definitely true. The way that we look at student success and similar to I'm sure what you've read in the industry we've heard in the industry is really around providing unique support for each and every student. That oftentimes dovetails in with my previous comments around the challenges with regard to scale, and so what we're trying to do with our solution and our best practices is identify the types of individual support that students need as they're coming in. So, well before they set foot on day one on campus or currently but making sure that they have that right support system and from the institution perspective, making sure they're offering the right services to those incoming students.

[00:04:08] Jay Fedje: So, predict the characteristic of the student coming in and being able to predict a student's success or risk factors, correct?

[00:04:15] Alex Leader: That is exactly correct, there are other vendors that are attempting to do something similar, right, with machine learning, artificial intelligence, where we really take a different a different path here is we want to overlay the human intelligence with that artificial intelligence and that's really where the magic happens if you will. So, it's no longer, hey, we can identify these students. It's how do we support them? And how do we set up a structure after the identification? It's what do you do with the information when you have it and making sure that information makes its way to the right individual success coaches, advisors, so that they can act upon it.

[00:04:49] Jay Fedje: What are the tactics that schools are using right now that are the most impactful in creating a really positive student success model?

[00:04:57] Alex Leader: That's a great question and the long and short of it is that each institution is a little bit different, right? Depending on how their advisors are made up, are they faculty advisors, are they professional advisors, but what we see consistent across the board is this concept around proactive versus reactive outreach and I listened to one of your podcasts with Evan Ray, the director of student success over at Ozark Technical Community College and he was talking a little bit about this as well, but ensuring that we have individuals, he called them navigators, we call them success coaches, making sure that you have that single point of contact, that's helping to be that air traffic controller for the student, and also being able to build rapport and consistency with that student over time is extremely important. There's been some great research studies that we've been a part of here in the last five years that really prove that out in the two-year community college setting. So, you asked what those key approaches are, certainly it's having that single point of contact and making sure that the types of services that the institutions are offering are really tailored toward each individual need.

[00:06:05] Jay Fedje: I'm glad you brought up the Evan Ray podcast episode, because what struck me about that and I think what I'm hearing from you as well is that as much as we can set up in modeling in system design and class mediation or academic mediation so forth, it really comes down to relationships. It comes down to individuals connecting with navigators, student success, coaches, advisors one-on-one so they can identify the needs of that particular student, that's heavy lifting, a school has to commit completely to resourcing that kind of a model in their school, doesn't it?

[00:06:44] Alex Leader: Yes and no. We always offer a solution where it’s a kind of getting started model. So what we see going into an institution, that's exploring this concept of do we want to hire professional advisors to him when he was faculty advisors and the, his success coaches is hey, let's measure the impact of adding two success coaches, for example and let's let that play itself out over 12, 18, 24 months, and then let's look at the data and let's let the data drive those decisions. So, from a leadership perspective and institution, it's much easier to justify a new program or the hiring of new staff. If you've got the data there to back it up, and yes, it's a challenge to go all in if you will, let's say if you're gonna hire 10 or 20 success coaches, but hiring one or two and looking at the data is really where we recommend starting.

[00:07:32] Jay Fedje: From an enrollment managers perspective, the traditional, bring as many in as you can and keep as many as you can model is a little bit outdated. We have to bring in students that are going to be successful. Keeping students to graduation to completion is far more economical and far more strategic but worth the effort for a school. So that investment, has as much as importance to the enrollment perspective as it does to the retention perspective, are schools looking in this direction as much as they should be looking in this direction?

[00:08:07] Alex Leader: They're starting to, I think we've seen changes over the last really four to five years. I think COVID even accelerated that change because enrollment dropped, and especially within our focus in terms of two-year institutions, enrollment is down 13, 15, 20% in some cases, and we have to be able to strategically focus on the students that are currently enrolled or had just dropped out due to external factors and making sure we have the right services to really ensure their success. Yes. The enrollment budget is much, much higher than when you look at student services or academic affairs. But I think we're starting to see a change in that over time.

[00:08:48] Jay Fedje: One of the things that comes to mind is student success surrounding equity is front center of a number of colleges efforts it's paramount to their strategic planning going forward. Talk a little bit about how institutions can create equitable scenarios in student success.

[00:09:05] Alex Leader: Yeah, certainly, and I completely agree with you. Yeah. equity is really from our perspective, from my perspective, a fundamental right of ensuring that everyone has equal access to achieve the goals that they've set forth to achieve, and so I mentioned earlier about a couple of different research studies, but one of those was the first in the world effort in the state of North Carolina, where it was to prove out and dovetailing into the previous topic a little bit too. To prove out whether success coaching and the assignment of success coaches would lead to improvements in student outcomes because it had been researched in the four-year private space but less so in the two year public and so we were the technical backbone of that research and there were some ten institutions in the state of North Carolina but what we saw out of that is really where I'm going here, but we saw a 12% increase in credential, completion, when a student's success coach didn't change and so that dovetails in with our previous conversation but now when you look at equity within this study was a by-product it wasn't the preliminary or the primary test here but what we saw were the black students who are assigned a success coach are 8% more likely to remain enrolled for a year, so fall to fall retention and 18% more likely to remain enrolled for two academic years and so this really spun off a secondary research study in the state called the Minority Male Success Initiative and we're in year two of a three-year study there with 11 additional institutions to really focus in on the minority male population. What types of services are leading to the most ideal outcomes for those groups and so circling all the way back around to your question in terms of ensuring equity when we go into an institution, we perform what we call an analysis against various different types of populations based upon different criteria, and we're then matching those populations with the various services that the institution has? Or maybe it doesn't have and making additional recommendations around how to support those populations.

[00:11:18] Jay Fedje: What type of activities, what type of engagement are you seeing has the most impact across all different types of students, age wise, culture, ethnicity, what are those things I think that schools are looking at saying if we need to implement this right away?

[00:11:36] Alex Leader: Yeah, and again, it's unique for each institution a little bit in the sense where, again, when we're doing our analysis, we're figuring out based upon the historical data of the institution, what's really driving success or introducing challenges, and then it's the matching of hey, this population are facing these challenges and how can we dovetail in the services? So when we look at it more holistically at a little bit higher level, it's around obtaining that initial engagement, and so whether that's part of the on boarding process, we have many institutions that are also injecting in assignments within the first year experience course to simply have that first advising appointment or have that first success coaching appointment to make sure that rapport is getting built up front so that when those challenges arise. We don't have to do the rapport building then, we already have a baseline.

[00:12:27] Jay Fedje: It's imperative that it starts off on the right foot. Maybe we just need to make sure that things are beginning the right way. One of the, one of the topics that we had just touched on earlier when it comes to enrollment managers, I'm fascinated by this idea of predicting success at the prospective student level. So really, we're talking about the very top of the funnel in identifying the characteristics there that will predict not only the student's enrollment. I think so many admissions managers get focused on just the entrance into the college it's just fill the seats with as many people as we can but don't necessarily focus as much attention or as much attention as they should on what does that student success story or that success model going to look like? What are the recruitment characteristics that schools can begin to unpack within their institutions recruitment pool that are going to predict student success?

[00:13:25] Alex Leader: That's a great question and I'll actually go back a little bit to what I said before, where the answer is, it depends. So you're exactly spot on so the institutions that we're working with now are wanting to know essentially a prospect to outcome or outcome is credential completion, a certificate attainment, a degree earned and presidents are starting to ask those questions of how can I go all the way to the prospecting side to figure out who's going to be successful, based upon the data is from the historical data who we think will be successful, but almost more. Yes, we want to enroll and when you look at two years, institutions are more open access, right? So they're enrolling everyone that's applying and then starting to match up the services that they're offering, and predicting what services they're going to have to offer at scale to support the populations that are coming in and so that is a great way that presidents are starting to look at this data and starting to make decisions around staffing, even size of programs, looking at programs maybe that have very limited enrollment and instead, starting to recruit students into other programs where the support structure already exists and so being able to really predict from prospect to credential completion that's certainly where this is going and it sounds simple when we say it, but the complexity of it is there in terms of student support.

[00:14:47] Jay Fedje: Knowing that a school’s pool of students will vary in success rates, knowing that what are the current challenges you're seeing the schools face and identifying those predictive characteristics in student success?

[00:14:59] Alex Leader: It really comes down to, and I'd like to use the analogy of turning data into information and so institutions have data that's living everywhere, right? So, student information systems, learning management systems, CRM systems, and you there’s really only two options, right? To pull that into and create information from it either a person has to go through each of those systems and try to compile together and determine an outcome or a predicted outcome, or you can let computers do that, which they're really good at mining data and turning it into information that's then subsequently actionable. So, you asked about the challenges are still trying to make and create information from the raw data that exists. So, we We've been involved with the gates foundation around exactly this problem around interoperability of systems and so interoperability is a huge barrier right now within higher education, because you have various systems, some of which don't talk to each other, others that do, and others that have nomenclature that's different and so being able to extract that and make it. Point number one, and so that's something that we do within our platform, as well as prior to Aviso, I was involved with Ohio's eTranscript Exchange System here within the state, and that allowed the 36 institutions to exchange data electronically out of their SIS and on the admission side, on the receiving side but we gained a lot of experience and understanding of these systems and how to bring that information, that data together. The second is that once you have that data turned into information, it's what do you do with it? It's how do you get it to the right people routed to the right types of roles, whether those are success, coaches, faculty, advisors, financial aid, or others, and then what should they do with it, and I think that latter part is the biggest question and that's the I talked a lot about people, process and technology. So having that process well-defined. We always assist institutions and some cases, institutions do have their process well defined in other cases maybe it's not as well-defined but making sure that process exists so that each individual at institution knows their role in the greater whole is extremely important, and that, again, helps to answer that question of what we do with the information when we get it.

[00:17:22] Jay Fedje: Actionable insights and putting them into action, I think is one of the great challenges for all institutions. Who's in charge of it and how to implement the plan. I'm going to shift gears for a minute. We talked a bit about predicting success, student success, one of the traditional predictors of success, standardized tests, and so standardized tests can be a hot button issue right now. I am in love with them and I hate them at the time, as an enrollment manager, there were useful to a certain degree I think there was too much emphasis put on them and too much faith put into them, but, it's changing, it's evolving and more and more schools are moving to test optional, which talks a bit about their value, and in this changing environment, let's talk a little bit about student success and how it relates to standardized tests. What are the options do you well, tell me about your thoughts on standardized tests first of all?

[00:18:10] Alex Leader: My thought on standardized tests is that they should be optional, but highly recommended, and why I say that is that on the incoming student’s side, when a student starts at an institution there's only so much information or data that's available about that student to try to figure out. How to match them up with whether it's a particular course that they test into a remedial course, for example, or whether it's a type of support that they need based upon those test scores, and so I do believe that tests have value on the incoming side. However, I do believe they should be optional. We have to make sure from an equity perspective that that we're ensuring everyone has access and everyone can simply take those tests as part of the admissions process.

[00:18:56] Jay Fedje: The access is part of it, there's volumes of discussion about cultural bias within the tests and how students from different communities will perform on the test, and do schools build their curriculum to succeed just on the test and not necessarily on the full curriculum. So yeah, I do understand all of those nuances and that's the internal dialogue I give myself is, do I like him? Do I hate him? It’s a little bit of both, but what are the other options? What other options do schools have at this point for testing? And if they're not going to be taking the standardized tests, the SAT or ACT then what else is there.

[00:19:30] Alex Leader: That's a great question, and I think there's a lot of debate around that too, but where I go next is around really an intake survey more of an intake process as part of the admissions process or once accepted and then especially in the two year institutions, making sure that we understand more about the whole of the person, rather than just can they succeed within specific tests and produce those results, and so this concept of intake surveys or intake forms and making sure that again we ask the questions that help us pair them with the services that will help them be most successful and so that's where I would turn, if we're going to test optional, or if students are not taking those tests.

[00:20:11] Jay Fedje: Those assessments, from my background in enrollment management those assessments are valuable because what I found is that the bell curve students at the highest academic end and students at the lowest academic end both struggle in different ways. I found so many students that were incredibly smart they did well on the SAT or ACT and got bored they didn't necessarily connect into college into the curriculum, into the programs. Do these assessments help all students, even those students that academically are able to move through, do they help that student as well?

[00:20:45] Alex Leader: I believe they do and I believe they do because it's there are additional data points that the institution has to craft solutions to students with various skills and so I think that's really important when we look at success coaching, or we look at the role of an advisor it's to make sure that we're matching up the student and we're being proactive with the student to help launch them into kind of their next goal or their next step and so making sure that we understand more about them is incredibly important.

[00:21:17] Jay Fedje: What drives them? What motivates them? When they're at risk, are they at risk during breaks do they have a, do they have a place, a home to go back to if they're living on campus, what is their community situation like? Are they stable? Do they have support networks around, all of those things in those assessments are identified correct?

[00:21:36] Alex Leader: Correct exactly, yep and then being able to craft really a customized path through the institution and whether that's hey, we have a student who's a continuing ed student that simply wants to get through one term or whether it's a certificate attainment or whether it's a two-year degree on to transfer it to a four-year institution. Each of those scenarios look different and so you're able to start to understand more about those differences through those assessments rather than just receiving a set of numbers on the ACT or the SAT.

[00:22:05] Jay Fedje: Those numbers are helpful I think to some folks in trying to weed left and right do we take the student or not take the student and they can justify the acceptance or the denial, but really when it comes to student success, needs to go deeper than that those assessments are providing that.

[00:22:22] Alex Leader: Yeah, I agree, and I think at the end of the day, the ACT, the SAT, and I'm speaking more from the two-year community college perspective here they are inputs into a greater process or a greater approach.

[00:22:35] Jay Fedje: Are there hidden attributes do you feel that schools should be monitoring that they don't necessarily monitor on a regular basis?

[00:22:43] Alex Leader: That's a great question. From our side, what we do is we also use census level data we're using data outside of the institution, an example of that, for example, is we're looking at zip codes and poverty ratios or poverty levels within zip codes and even free and reduced lunch programs within the high schools in which students are coming from and yes, we're blending in additional data from other sources that the institutions not necessarily capturing, as I mentioned earlier, it's really the collection of all of these attributes together, which leads to an understanding of, Hey, here's the makeup and the challenges that a student might experience. So, the answer to your question is yes, there could be data points that no one's capturing that is that silver bullet, but that silver bullet requires overlaying all of the other data points as well, to really get an understanding of the person.

[00:23:31] Jay Fedje: You mentioned that things changed during COVID that and so much changed on campuses across the country, around the world how they treated students, how the delivery systems for their education how students went to college and experienced college, it all changed quickly. So, looking at that and then looking at the tea leaves in the next cycle, the next upcoming cycles, are there predictions that you have looking forward?

[00:23:59] Alex Leader: Yeah, certainly and so what we saw in fall of last year was that dramatic decline I'm talking about, and from the two-year perspective again, 11 to 14%, depending on the types of students that were impacted, and we actually saw in the spring that many of those students did return. So, when we look at this coming fall, the enrollment numbers are relatively where they were prior to COVID but I think what's important here I is think that. The student experience has changed from the student perspective and so all of the great outreach that institutions were doing with their success coaches and advisors that now as the kind of standard of care, if you will be going forward that's also challenging for an institution as the number of students again, swell back to those pre COVID levels. So, from a prediction’s perspective, Institutions and you alluded to it earlier, the focus on student success becoming more important and so I believe that being able to scale out what's been done in the last year we know the importance of it we know the outcomes of it now through COVID but now what are going to be the outcomes post COVID? I think that's the question and the question is how we scale as an institution, our resources, our people, our processes, and will those start to burst at the seam a little bit, given that enrollment is starting to increase.

[00:25:20] Jay Fedje: Enrollment's starting to return, but we all know the demographic cliff is coming I hate beating on that drum over and over again, but in 2025, there are fewer students entering college from that point into the foreseeable future. So, colleges and universities need to be excellent at not just enrolling in admitting students but keeping them it's an imperative to their success.

[00:25:43] Alex Leader: A hundred percent agree and I think for those institutions that are looking to scale and making sure that from all the way from the top down from the president down through the VPs, down through the success coaches, everyone understanding their role and their impact within the strategy is incredibly important because your right, as we go forward in time, student success has been higher and higher importance in my opinion in terms of the future where we're headed.

[00:26:09] Jay Fedje: It's important to the university, but it's even more important than students too many students stop and don't start again there, in scenarios and situations that could have either been prevented or there could have been the school support through them that didn't take place. I totally agree I'm glad that we're talking about this today. We've been talking to Alex Leader Founder and CEO of Aviso Retention about all thing’s retention and student success, Alec we've run out of time, but I so appreciate your time and insights today if folks have questions, we're going to be putting a link to your company's website on the podcast advertising marketing piece and so just to let you know, and you might be getting a few calls.

[00:26:49] Alex Leader: All right. Thanks again, Jay, for having, I appreciate it.

[00:26:52] Jay Fedje: Appreciate it, Alex. Have a great day.

[00:27:00] Jay Fedje: You've been listening to the Enrollment Edge Podcast, Enrollment Edge is sponsored by enrollmentFUEL, a full-service student search and marketing partner to colleges and universities. If you're listening on Apple podcast, please give us a five-star rating and review, your feedback will help us remain relevant and on the edge. The Enrollment Edge is produced by Alison Walls, I'm your host Jay Fedje. Thanks for listening.