Improving Community College Retention Rates

With Indiana’s college-going rate at a historic low, Ivy Tech Community College is piloting a new program to keep students on campus by making sure they have 10 specific habits. The program — called Ivy Achieves – aims to ensure that once students go to college, they complete their degrees. Retention is top of mind for those in higher education, especially coming out of the pandemic, said Dean McCurdy, provost for Ivy Tech Community College. With Indiana’s college-going rate of just 53% (the lowest in recent history) and shifts in learning due to the pandemic, Ivy Tech leaders changed the way they think about what students need and want.

Ivy Achieves is one result of that mindset shift. Ivy Tech leaders created the 10 “high impact habits” by looking for what habits make a student more likely to stay, and the pilot program has promising signs as early data shows that the more habits students keep, the more likely they are to be registered for the spring classes.

Looking at data and consulting with students, faculty, and staff, Ivy Tech considered more than 60 different student habits, McCurdy said. One data point they considered, for example, was that first-time students are less likely to pass their courses than other types of students. And if they do fail in their first term, they are less likely to keep going to the next term or will enroll in fewer credit hours. Additionally, officials considered that having a C or higher in a class is a predictor of retention, and course success rates are lower for students who are Black, Latino, two or more races, or eligible for Pell Grants. Using this data, leaders looked for what habits stood out as the “most important drivers of success,” McCurdy said, and Ivy Achieves was born.

The habits are behaviors and practices around academic planning, finances, and campus life that can be tracked in real time and have helped other Ivy Tech students, officials said. For example, McCurdy said the habit of registering more than 30 days before a term starts gives students time to arrange child care and transportation. Here are the 10 habits of Ivy Achieves:

  1. Register at least 30 days before the start of the term
  2. Maintain a C or better in all courses
  3. Use IvyLearn, the online course management system, consistently
  4. Meet with an academic advisor or career coach regularly
  5. Have a valid and approved Academic Completion Plan (ACP)
  6. Take all courses on ACP
  7. Complete the FAFSA on time
  8. Be in paid status by Start of Term
  9. Enroll in and complete IVYT, a one-credit class that helps students navigate college
  10. Participate in Orientation

Making sure students have the support to achieve the 10 habits is where the “Campus Lead” role comes in. On the Evansville Campus, it’s Marcus Weatherford, the community college director of student experience. He works with students and staff to educate them about the 10 habits and guide them to resources. He’s working with roughly 250 students, including Donny Payne, who came to Ivy Tech after graduating high school in spring 2022, and plans to one day transfer to University of Southern Indiana for an engineering degree.

After attending orientation, Payne went to the Lamkin Center on campus, where student resources are housed, and started talking with Weatherford. At first, Payne thought resources like transportation help or the food pantry were for someone else, not him, Weatherford said. But with Weatherford’s help, those resources kept Payne in school. A bus pass, for example, helped him get to campus this semester until he was able to get his own car. “We were struggling at the house and didn’t have much for groceries… that’s helped a lot,” Payne said.

The barriers to staying in school are often greater for community college students than students at a four-year school, Weathersford said, and can be particularly discouraging to students in their first semester. While older students might be proactive in asking for help, many will need time before bringing up their problems. So it’s important to have a point person invested in their success – like Weatherford and his colleagues – to ask students lots of questions, like if they’re eating well or whether any troubles at home are affecting their studying. Before, Weatherford would wait for students to come with an issue and he’d direct them to the resources they need. Now, it’s about reaching students before that moment through email and texts as well as in person.

Ivy Achieves is part of a larger effort to improve communication and in turn, retention with students throughout Ivy Tech, officials said. Colleges used to send all information to all students, said Jo Nahod-Carlin, Ivy Tech vice president for marketing, recruitment, and enrollment. But now, she said information is more targeted and clear – removing higher education jargon and sharing information with the students who may need it. If a student has said at any point that they need child care, they’ll keep receiving information about child care options, Nahod-Carlin said, adding students who haven’t filled out the FAFSA will get information about getting help with the financial aid documents. In an ideal situation, students don’t have to repeat themselves, but an advisor or campus lead or faculty member can look at student records to not only see their academics but a more holistic picture of the student’s experience to help pinpoint resources.

And just like data helped inform the 10 Ivy Achieves habits, McCurdy said he’s excited to see the tools that will continue to be developed to help student success. “Some of it is as simple as saying: in your program, if you were to take this course next, we would advise you to do that because students who’ve done that have been more successful or for you based on your own history, we would recommend that you take this course face-to-face,” he said. Because ultimately, McCurdy said the goal isn’t just enrollment or retention or even graduation – it’s what college can do for the next step: a four-year university or a better job. “Yes, we want to serve more students, but we also want to make sure that we are successful with the ones that we have and that success doesn’t just begin and end with us either,” he said. “College is not the destination.”

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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