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How to Solve 4 Campus Challenges with the Right Communication Strategy

By: Ready Education on Feb 21, 2023 10:00:00 AM
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Christine Deacons-1Article written by Dr. Christine Deacons (see more articles here)

Dr. Christine Deacons is VP of Student Success and head of research at Ready Education. Prior to joining the team at Ready Education, she worked at Eastern Michigan University for over 10 years where she spent most of her time as Director of Academic Support Programs. She was responsible for academic support for the institution and was involved in writing and administering several grant programs supporting vulnerable student populations. During her time at EMU, she served on numerous committees, presented research at local and national conferences, and taught Human Development and Learning in the College of Education. In 2017, she was presented with a Distinguished Achievement Recognition Award for Student Engagement and Success.

We know that student retention and graduation is an ongoing issue at the majority of colleges and universities in the US.  There are so many factors that contribute to whether or not a student persists or drops out of college that it is difficult to generalize any kind of prescriptive measures that schools should consider to improve student retention and persistence on their campuses.  However, student success research suggests several themes that contribute to the dropout problem including issues related to financial aid, academic struggles, and a general sense of disconnection.  Millions of dollars are spent every year on programs designed to support students through these financial, academic and well-being challenges.  Yet we’ve made very little progress towards improving retention and graduation rates.  Perhaps it’s time to take a different approach to solving this problem.

After over a decade of working with first-year students at a mid-sized public institution, it became clear to me that student retention and graduation was a solvable problem, but that efforts to impact student achievement were so diluted on college campuses that there was no way to impact the number of students needed to move the retention needle.  What I mean by this is that very few schools actually had campus-wide coordinated top-down retention and graduation strategies.  The schools that have effectively adopted this kind of strategy have actually seen great improvements in student retention and graduation rates. The one thing that these schools have in common is their commitment to personalized attention. The key to providing this attention is a strong and effective communication strategy.

For years, school administrators have bemoaned the fact that students don’t read their email yet the primary means by which schools communicate with their students is via email. Email wasn’t an effective form of communication with students a decade ago and is even less so today. Students consider email to be an antiquated and inefficient form of communication. In recent years, we’ve seen more schools invest in texting and customer relationship management (CRM) platforms to supplement their use of email. This past week I actually spoke with a colleague who told me that his institution used email, texting, a CRM, two apps, an early alert system, and two analytics systems to communicate with students. As he was walking me through how his team uses all of these systems, all I could think about was the money his institution could save if they focused on a consistent campus-wide communication strategy with half the tools they are currently using.

As we continue to see enrollments and budgets declining in many regions of the country, we have to be smarter with the way we approach problem solving on campuses.  Communication is one area where most schools could dramatically improve. Solving the problem of communication on campuses doesn’t need to be complicated nor does it require multiple spot solutions. Consider the following problems that could be solved (and students who could be helped) with a single, well-coordinated communication strategy:

  1. Students who drop out because they could not pay off their tuition bill.  Every fall I worked with students who did not return for winter term because they could not pay off their fall balances.  What would have happened if we had been able to identify the students who had no idea how they were going to pay off their fall balance at the very beginning of the semester? If we had utilized a campus-wide student centered communication solution, and made sure that all new students understood how and why to use that solution, we could have sent the students who were identified very specific and targeted communication about options they had for getting their fall tuition bill paid.  We could have also started a drip campaign for those students combined with administrative outreach.  How many of those students would still be enrolled?  
  2. Students who leave because they feel disconnected from other students and the campus community. Post-pandemic one thing is clear - students are eager to connect with other students. However, they are not necessarily interested in connecting in person as they did in previous years.  Some colleagues report that students are registering for events but the show rate is less than 50%.  So, how are you fostering meaningful connections virtually?  Are you providing a digital space where students can connect and begin to build networks of support - something that doesn’t happen on a social media platform?  What if your students could connect with one another digitally to build friendships before coming to campus?
  3. Students who drop out for reasons related to academic struggles.  What would happen if your student success team knew about students who were struggling in the first three weeks of school instead of after midterms?  If you are able to identify those students who might need help, do you have a student-centered effective and non-threatening way of sharing resources and communicating with them?  Even when we were able to identify students who were struggling early in the semester, many didn’t want to interact with the success team. How then do you get students the support they need?  
  4. Students who leave because of issues related to their health and well-being. I was always saddened to see the number of students left school because of struggles with health and well-being issues every term.  Too often we didn’t find out about the student’s struggles until they needed counseling - and too often, our counseling center was booked out months in advance.  What would happen if we were able to identify students who might be struggling with health and well-being issues as soon as they started to struggle? What if we could have gotten tools and resources to them early enough so that they never needed counseling?  
There are certain truths that we must acknowledge about student communication in the post-pandemic world. The first is that technology doesn’t work on its own. People make technology work. Organizations make technology effective when they have a shared understanding of how and why a particular solution is adopted and should be used - a critical part of the technology strategy. Technology should simplify, not complicate, the problem we are trying to solve. If the problem we are solving involves communication, the solution must meet students where they live - not email, not snail mail, not voicemail. If we are adopting a solution to solve communication challenges with digital natives, we need to make sure that the solution is digital.  
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