GPA confusion and falling retention rates

How one university turned it around to help students soar

The Insight: For students to successfully persist into sophomore year, they have to know when they’re in danger of dropping out. But freshmen at this institution didn’t understand policies regarding academic eligibility, putting them at risk for academic probation or losing out on financial aid.

The Improvement: By the time students look up academic policies, most likely their standing is already in trouble. Instead of sending at-risk students to a web page full of rules and regulations, the institution updated its website to send students straight to an academic recovery resource page. This way, students could access support right away instead of getting caught in institutional red tape.

All successful airplane pilots know what it takes to complete takeoff and soar gracefully into the sky. Whether that pilot is a young newbie fresh out of flight school, or a seasoned professional flying jet planes for decades, the journey is always the same. It begins with a pre-flight checklist. How high are fuel levels? Are the windows and doors closed? Is the parking brake turned off? These questions and more will help the pilot gauge how successful her flight will be.  

But what if you cannot locate your checklist, or worse, you can’t even read and comprehend it? Both students and InsideTrack Coaches alike had a difficult time understanding one university’s academic policies, making it a challenge for students to soar to new heights of academic success.

In the summer of 2017, InsideTrack teamed up with a four-year private university with the goal of increasing first-year retention rates by providing coaching to freshmen. But by the spring semester, a major hurdle to student success became apparent.

Students were having a difficult time understanding basic GPA and academic policies. Their confusion put them in danger of straying off course academically, losing their financial aid and ultimately dropping out. Even the InsideTrack team — full of educational pros skilled in navigating institutional ins and outs — was just as confused as the students about the university’s academic policies.

As a result of rigorous ongoing coaching and relationship-building, the InsideTrack team was able to bring their learnings to university partners. The team was already sharing weekly updates based on insights they heard from students. Much of the feedback highlighted the institution’s strengths — how students felt at home in their campus community, and were grateful for all of the resources available to them, like tutoring, the writing center and even anxiety workshops.

When the time came to report on roadblocks, such as students’ confusion about academic policies, the institution was ready to hear it.

“When we shared the challenges in understanding academic policy and shared that our coaches were even confused by wording on the website, they were able to connect the dots — if academic professionals can’t understand institutional policy, something needs to change,” recalled Andrea Jenkins, operations team manager at InsideTrack.

Navigating toward success

Armed with detailed student insights, the university’s student support team approached the Associate Deans’ Council. In response, the university took action by changing information available on the website, the place where most students had been learning about academic policies.

Once a student clicked on the “Academic Standing” page, the first option they would see would be the “Academic Recovery” page, rather than the general policy page. The “Academic Recovery” page listed resources to help students currently on probation make progress toward graduation. It also showcased support services, such as coaching, that were available to help students create an individual program for success.

Better insight = better retention rates

The changes to the website are just one aspect of the university’s long-term strategy to provide students the support needed to persist. Even before changes were made, students were already succeeding in greater numbers. The year before coaching started, first-year retention was at 79 percent. For the 2017 cohort — the first cohort to receive coaching through InsideTrack — retention rose to 85 percent.

With website changes in place, even greater success lies ahead for the partnership. More and more students are engaging in coaching, Jenkins noted, based on positive referrals from friends and roommates. And coaches keep learning new insights about the student experience that help make a successful student support program even stronger.

“This has been an incredibly engaged partner and they’ve taken a lot of ownership in the program’s success. That is what’s made made institutional impact possible,” Jenkins said.

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