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Community Colleges Earn Top Honors for Digital Efforts to Help Students Succeed

In this year's Digital Community Colleges Survey 2015-16, community colleges that make student success a priority in their IT departments have come out on top.

The results for the Center for Digital Education's Digital Community Colleges Survey program are in, and three community colleges catapulted into top spots due in part to their technology support for student advising efforts.

Each year, the survey asks hundreds of community colleges to share their ed tech initiatives, and while this year's winners worked on a variety of projects, they all traced their efforts back to helping students succeed.

Montgomery County Community College (MCCC) in Pennsylvania took first place in the large colleges category, which includes colleges of 10,000 students or more. With Integrated Planning and Advising for Student Success (iPASS) grants, MCCC is trying to increase retention and completion rates by redesigning the student advising process, said Celeste Schwartz, vice president of IT and institutional research. Then her team finds easy-to-use tools that work well in that advising process.

In the first round of grants, MCCC started using an early alert system, education planning system and a dashboard for all students that included data from three different tools. In the second round, college leaders started training on how to use a career planning tool, and will soon have access to a financial planning tool, Schwartz said.

The career planning tool would help students set goals and figure out what major career components they want in their future careers. The tool's assessments take just 20 minutes to go through, and if students actually complete a career plan, then they can talk with their advisers about what education programs will help them reach their career goals. 

On the money side of things, the financial planning tool would help students learn financial literacy so they can continue attending college rather than dropping out later, Schwartz said.

"If we can provide enough resources and also provide a little bit more guidance early into the semester, then perhaps students will see opportunities of how they might be able to save a few dollars here and there, and how they can better manage the financial components of their education journey," Schwartz said.

The college is still deciding whether to have every student go through these two tools or whether specific groups or cohorts should go through them. The one constant, Schwartz said, will be that everyone sees an adviser first.   

At Hostos Community College of the City University of New York, freshmen work with success coaches who stick with them throughout their time at the college. The winner of the midsize colleges category, which includes colleges with 5,000 to 10,000 students, primarily serves minority and low-income students whose family members didn't earn higher education degrees, so these coaches guide them on their education journey, said Varun Sehgal, CIO and assistant vice president.

A number of tools help both students and their coaches throughout the advising process, including an early warning system and a mobile app, Sehgal said. The early warning system from Starfish uses a combination of analytics and feedback from college staff to identify students who are starting to struggle. Then coaches can track their interactions and outreach efforts with students.

These outreach efforts include sending push notifications to students through the Hostos mobile app, which works better since students don't always check email, Sehgal said. The app and other tools on campus allow students to sign in with the same login information so they don't have to remember multiple passwords. Because each tool has an application programming interface (API), IT staff can take advantage of the college's current technology investments and connect data from different systems.

"The reality is that the role of technology in not just pedagogy but in the overall success of our students is so critical," Sehgal said.

And in the small colleges category, which includes colleges with fewer than 5,000 students, Wyoming's Laramie County Community College (LCCC) also uses the Starfish early warning system to help faculty and advisors track students. And LCCC integrates student information system data into the early warning system.

Faculty members can flag a student in the system if they're not attending class, are in danger of failing or have other challenges. That flag triggers a notification to a student adviser to follow up with the student. On the other hand, faculty members can raise kudo flags that tell advisers their students are doing a great job in class, said Chad Marley, the college's chief technology officer.

Along with this system, the college has increased the number of advisers on campus, shifted major advising responsibilities from faculty to advisers, and is building a student services center, Marley said. Behind the scenes, LCCC doubled the Internet connection at its main campus to 1 gigabyte thanks to Wyoming's push for broadband in the K-12 schools and community colleges that are part of its unified network. This network increase allowed the IT team to speed up Internet across the campus and particularly in the dorms, where students often couldn't get onto the network to do their homework because of the traffic.

"We have a very robust wireless network on our campuses," Marley said, "and it just allows them to have quicker responses and the ability to do more things in a faster response time."