Mary Beth Hanner, provost
We all know that a big part of Excelsior’s mission relates to providing access to education, especially for those who have been historically underrepresented in higher education. A larger challenge is providing the key elements necessary to help students stay on task and complete their desired educational goals. Our students are working adults, with an average age of 39 years, and they face multiple competing demands on their time and resources. Care giving responsibilities with children and aging parents, job pressures, and limited finances often get in the way of college completion. As hard as the staff and faculty at Excelsior try, sometimes we simply can’t provide a solution to the problems our students encounter. When students face some of these overwhelming challenges, we can only hope they will return to college at a later time.
We are, however, trying to identify variables that we can impact in order to help students continue to move forward toward their educational goals. We currently have a large data analytics project underway to identify factors that place students at risk for dropping out of school. Once these variables are identified, we want to test interventions that will help to retain more of this at risk population. Although we are still in the early stages of this project, we have identified one important factor related to retention. What we found is that getting started with a course or an examination early in the student’s first year is strongly associated with retention. Interestingly, it is not necessarily the earlier the better as we had suspected. Students who got started right away in the first three months were retained at about the same rate as those who got started between three and six months post enrollment. But once it gets later than six months, retention rates start to decline.
We currently have several advisor-initiated outreach projects to encourage early academic activity. Most of our faculty are working with students who are already enrolled in a course. Encouraging completion of the current course and a call to an advisor to continue program planning may help to keep students focused on their educational goals and moving forward. The good news is that data from the Priorities Survey for Online Learners (PSOL) indicate that overall our students are highly satisfied with our courses and with our faculty. Our course completion rates average around 92 percent— an excellent rate that I believe is due to the quality of our courses as well as student engagement with course content, other students, and most definitely with our faculty. Share your ideas for student retention and degree completion in the comments section below.