• Success Stories

Building the Workforce One Student at a Time: OSU Institute of Technology’s Plan to Improve Retention

Ina Agnew

In 2013, representatives of Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology (OSUIT) attended the first roundtable for the HLC Academy on Persistence and Completion. While OSUIT regularly utilized data to determine its strategies for recruiting, we were not as vigilant on the retention side. The academy “encouraged” us to determine what data to analyze, and then create reports so the data could be consistently collected and analyzed.

Our data indicated that: (1) we are losing most of our students in the fourth semester, (2) males have a higher retention rate than females, (3) retention of A.A.S. and B.T. degree students is significantly higher than students pursuing an A.S. degree, and (4) students placed into developmental classes are not completing gateway courses. Over the past ten years, we have gained and lost ground, never moving the needle on retention more than one-to-two percent. Our motto of “building the workforce one student at a time” took on a darker meaning.  We read research papers, visited other universities, explored the “game changers” of Complete College America (CCA), and committed hearts, minds, and resources to addressing retention.

Gateway Courses
Gateway courses, as described by the John Gardner Institute, are foundational in nature, high-risk determined by how many D, F, W, and I grades are earned, and are high in enrollment.  We evaluated our high D, F, W, and I courses (35 percent or more), and discovered challenges with pedagogy, instructors, and scheduling, among others. We have improved our professional development opportunities for faculty, provided time for researching best practices, as well as faculty release time to redesign curriculum. A committee of faculty and staff identified and selected three courses for curriculum redesign: computer literacy, business math, and composition I. Our first courses will be piloted in fall 2017, data analyzed and shared, and modifications made as necessary.

Evaluation Measures. We’ll compare the DFWI rates of students in the piloted sections to those who are not, by instructor, by term. We’ll also evaluate qualitative data collected through survey instruments sent to students, faculty and staff, and conduct focus groups.

Co-Requisite Remediation
Students enrolled in remedial courses were completing them. However, they were not completing the gateway course. None of our remedial students, regardless of ethnicity, were completing English (composition I). None of our black students were completing their gateway math course (business math or college algebra). Faculty selected four three-credit-hour classes to pilot a 3+2 model of enrollment:  composition I, technical writing, college algebra, and business math. In this model, students needing remediation are enrolled directly into the college-level classes, side-by-side with other students.  However, the remedial students also must enroll in a two-credit-hour lab for supplemental instruction and support. If our model holds to what CCA has seen nationwide, we anticipate a 45 percent increase in the pass rate of remedial students in these courses. Our pilot courses will be offered fall 2017.

Evaluation Measures. We will compare the pass, persistence, and retention rates of students in co-requisite remediation courses to those who are enrolled in the traditional developmental-to-gateway course sequencing. We will also compare student retention and success in subsequent, non-developmental courses.

Concierge Services
By culling through withdrawal forms, calling non-returning students, and interviewing faculty, we recognized that our students had many of the same issues described by top retention experts like Tinto and Braxton. Employment, family expectations, financial challenges and other nonacademic factors affected the persistence and degree completion of our students. Even our schedule had a negative influence on retention. Our data demonstrated that we experienced the highest attrition when students entered into their fourth semester. We had a high retention rate through the first year, but then students stopped enrolling. Why? Delving deeper into the data, we realized that students felt the first real pressure on finances entering into their fourth semester.

OSUIT is a trimester institution (fall, spring, and summer). Our aid is divided into thirds instead of halves, and the aid does not go as far. Students will carry a balance preventing enrollment, and they don’t have the summer to work and earn money to pay it off. This also means that satisfactory academic progress occurs at the end of the summer semester, not spring. For this issue, OSUIT revised its policy of $0 balance for enrollment. Students with a balance of $200 or less are now eligible to enroll for the following semester. In addition, we increased the scholarship funds for returning students, and changed our awarding criteria to better support retention.

Barriers were more than just financial. There were a whole host of reasons provided by students. To search for best practices, we turned to our membership in the Education Advisory Board, and came across Concierge Services. Intrigued, we were put in contact with the person who implemented this strategy at her institution. To briefly describe, a survey comprised of 18 or fewer questions is sent to all new students. The questions are designed around those issues most often cited in retention research. These questions ask students to self-identify what they perceive will be their barriers to success. Then, the university identifies on- and off-campus services to address those barriers. For example, if a student answers “yes” to the question “do you have trouble getting food for yourself or family members,” that student will be sent information on food pantries and how to apply for services.

Just like upscale hotels where guests receive personalized help at the time of need, OSUIT provides timely messaging to students about services specific to their needs and interests. What we mean by timing is that while it may be tempting to provide information about tutoring services to students within the first several weeks of the semester, the reality is that students won’t pay attention to the message until one week before mid-term and finals. That is the optimum time to send the tutoring message, and we identify the optimum time to send messages for every single resource we have on our service matrix.

Here is what the data says so far:

  • Concierge students in A.S. degree programs have higher persistence rates and GPAs than non-concierge A.S. students.
  • Non-concierge students in A.A.S. and B.T. degree programs have higher persistence rates and GPAs than concierge students.

Anecdotally, we believe this strategy is a winner no matter what the numbers say. In a recent presentation to the officers of our student clubs and organizations, one student self-identified as going hungry and asked for help, and several advisors asked for the resources to share with students in their classes. This presentation garnered more comments and discussion that any we’ve had in recent memory.

Evaluation Measures. We will make improvements to the service messaging by adding self-help videos through Atomic Learning. And, we will continue to track our efforts, and conduct more granular analyzations of the data. We’ll do this by comparing the persistence and retention rates and GPAs of concierge students to non-concierge students.

Peer Mentors
Through a grant from USA Funds [now the Strada Education Network, which includes Student Connections], OSUIT was able to implement a peer mentoring program. A staff member worked with the deans of each school to identify students to serve in this paid position. Peer mentors were responsible for contacting students who had been identified as at-risk through the early alert system, and also tutored students in technical subjects.

Our persistence rate for peer mentored students has improved each year from 61 percent in 2014 to 71 percent in 2015, and 76 percent in 2016. For retention, we’ve seen an improvement from 37 percent in 2014, to 47 percent in 2015, and 49 percent in 2016. We will be making improvements to the onboarding process for new mentors, and will expand communications with students to include regular phone calls, text messages and emails.

Evaluation Measures. We’ll continue to compare the persistence and retention rates of peer-mentored students to those who are not mentored.

OSUIT has over 700 industry partners with whom we work for everything from reviewing curriculum annually, to ensuring graduates of our programs meet their exacting standards. We’ve been more aggressive in working with companies to build their talent pipelines by recruiting students and sending them to OSUIT. A sponsorship, at a minimum, means: (1) provide a mentor, (2) provide branded apparel for the student to represent the company, (3) written agreement to provide a paid internship, and (4) written agreement to hire the student upon successful completion of the internship and graduation. Additionally, some companies provide scholarships, loan reimbursements, or even purchase the tools students need for their trade (long-term) and studies.

Sponsored students have higher persistence and retention rates than non-sponsored students. This holds true for students are in programs like Toyota and Caterpillar where sponsorship is a requirement. And, we see this with individual students who are sponsored by companies who have the foresight to change up the HR model of recruiting at the time a position opens to recruiting for projected needs.

To close, while we feel overextended, our faculty and staff are firm in the belief that we must improve the success rates of all students. We don’t believe we can do just one thing. Using the data, we identified those strategies that showed the most promise for our students, and we will improve persistence to graduation!

Dr. Ina Agnew is vice president of student services at Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology