Knowing that someone cares can make all the difference. Recognizing the power of a personal connection, Western Iowa Tech Community College implemented a low-cost but innovative program to reach out to at-risk students.
“Sometimes, just one phone call can make a difference for a student,” said Patricia Sutherland, dean of students at the college. “We’ve been able to encourage students to come back with just one phone call. Often they say, ‘oh, I didn’t know I could still come back’, or they weren’t aware of services we can offer them. Just having someone take a personal interest in them and call them makes a huge difference.”
Using data in Colleague Retention Alert, the college develops intentional, targeted call lists. The lists are divided among 10 part-time employees, called retention liaisons, who use the data to engage students prior to, during, and after each semester. For example, prior to the semester, calls are placed to students who have not graduated and are not enrolled for the current semester; have applied but not registered; or have withdrawn during the prior semester.
After the start of the semester, the liaisons call first-time students to ask out how they are doing, answer questions, and review the support services that are available to them. The liaisons also call anyone who is at risk of being de-enrolled for non-payment, students reported as absent, and those who have dropped classes.
“We want to make a connection with students,” explained Sutherland. “We want to offer them support services before they leave the college. A little support can encourage a student to find a way to remain in school even though their problems seem overwhelming at the time.”
In addition to the liaisons, the college provides training on Colleague Retention Alert to designated faculty and staff. They add to the support network by following and engaging caseloads of select students. By being involved in the process, faculty and staff have become more sensitive to the challenges that students face outside the classroom, and have gained a better understanding of the need to mentor students from day one.
The results from the program have been “pretty remarkable,” said Sutherland. Retention from fall to spring term increased by five percent over four years.
“Many of our students are experiencing college for the first time, and some are the first ones in their family. It can be intimidating. They don’t always know there are people who can help them when they have a problem, or they might be too shy or embarrassed to ask. So instead of expecting them to reach out to us, we want to be proactive. Even when we talk to a student who has made a final decision not to return to the college, I hope they learn from the experience that they shouldn’t be afraid to make their needs known and ask for help. I hope they take that skill with them to other situations.”
Creating this successful program that is touching so many students was a large team effort. Sima Dabir, Matt Thomsen, and Bea Houston are former supervisors of the program who played pivotal roles in getting it implemented. Tawnya Beerman is the current supervisor. In addition, Sutherland wants to thank the current retention liaisons and “many other people too numerous to name” who have contributed to this successful program.
The college was awarded the 2013 Ellucian Inspire Award for Student Success.
For more information on the program, contact Sutherland at Tricia.Sutherland@witcc.edu or 712-274-6400 ext. 1336