At the beginning of every year, our research team polls Student Success Collaborative members to understand the top challenges leaders face and to solicit input on our student success research agenda for the coming twelve months.
This process is a fascinating look into what’s keeping our members up at night, and last year, I was surprised to learn that the topic ranked highest by our members—across two- and four-year schools, publics and privates, small and large schools, and even high and low graduation rates—was "coordinating early alerts." I was surprised because early alerts are not new—they’ve been around for over 15 years.
Early alerts allow faculty members to identify at-risk students and share that information with advisors and other student support staff on campus. In an ideal world, a college’s early-alert program prevents students from slipping through the cracks by allowing for timely intervention. In reality, many university leaders confessed to me that their early-alert programs are, in practice, uncoordinated and inefficient.
So, I set out to discover why this ubiquitous and well-meaning investment so often fails to produce results. My research revealed three main reasons why early-alert programs can fall short:
1. They lack clear and narrow objectives
One of the trends I first noticed was that many early-alert programs do not have an objective beyond "identify students who may be at risk." While this is a perfectly admirable goal, it’s the equivalent of stopping in the middle of a sentence. Once you have identified a potential at-risk student, what next? Faculty end up flagging a large number of potential risks, overwhelming staff with the volume of alerts and their ability to resolve them. Without clear-cut goals, early-alert programs like these fizzle out.
Conversely, I learned that schools that set early-alert program objectives to improve outcomes for a well-defined student population see impressive results. Narrowing the focus to a specific group of students allows schools to measure the impact of early-alert interventions, and the resulting metrics affirm the work that faculty and staff perform to get early alerts off the ground. The most successful stories I heard were those from schools that had not only set specific program objectives, but also tied these to larger, strategic goals at the institution- or school-level.
One example is the early-alert program at Wayne State University. One of Wayne State’s institutional goals is to close their black-to-white student graduation gap. To align their early-alert program objectives to this larger goal, administrators chose students in the Warrior VIP program, a program for students of color, as their target population for early alerts. Leaders at Wayne State wanted to ensure that students of color who might otherwise slip through the cracks received early academic support and accessed available resources—so focusing their early-alert program on this target population made sense.
Their efforts to focus on a narrow and strategically-aligned objective paid off: Warrior VIP students use services at 5x the rate of general undergraduates, and an average of 156 additional students are retained per year.
3 first-year programs that close the achievement gap
2. They aren't designed with faculty in mind
One thing that all the successful early-alert programs have in common is that they are designed to increase and sustain faculty participation. It’s obvious that early-alert programs depend on faculty participation: without faculty members’ continued engagement, staff can’t learn which students are at-risk or offer them care.
What’s less obvious is how to design your early-alert program for greater faculty adoption. Leaders at schools like Danville Community College, CSU-Northridge, the University of Northern Colorado, and the University of Florida have implemented six key strategies to maximize faculty participation and ensure their programs are centered on the faculty:
- Set and communicate clear expectations for faculty, to avoid confusion and noncompliance
- Ask for faculty input on reporting dates
- Focus communications on the impact of early alerts on both individual student performance and broader student success goals
- Maintain a regular communications calendar, which ensures faculty receive reminders on key dates
- Allow faculty sufficient time to submit early alerts (i.e., up to a week)
- Ask leadership to nudge non-responders
- Close the loop when early alerts are resolved
Of these six strategies, I heard most about the importance of communicating to faculty the outcome and overall impact of the early alerts they submit. At the University of Northern Colorado, leaders convey to faculty how the program improves student grades in specific courses. Leaders believe they have sustained faculty engagement over several years because faculty can directly see the impact that their early-alert reporting has on students.
3. There is no established path between early alerts and coordinated interventions
Many of the schools I talked with during my research shared inspiring stories about how they use EAB’s Student Success Management System to engage their faculty to collect early alerts. A much smaller subset of schools had stories about the seamless and coordinated interventions that followed. In fact, I uncovered that very few had clearly defined processes for what happens after early alerts are submitted by faculty.
Without clear instructions or guidelines on how to respond to early alerts, advisors and student support staff sometimes respond to alerts in varying ways, impacting the quality and consistency of care provided to students and reducing staff efficiency and effectiveness. I often heard stories of discrepancies in advisor responses to a common early-alert reason: "attendance concern." I learned that while one advisor responded by meeting with the student, another referred them to a support office, and another passed along resources via an email. Members told me that what their staff needed was a blueprint for how to respond to early alerts—so they could know how to best use their time to reach the students that needed their support.
One school that has taken concrete steps to address this problem is Mercy College. Leaders at Mercy wanted to standardize their early-alert interventions to improve student outcomes and optimize staff time, and they did this by developing early alert "intervention pathways." Intervention pathways determine a single, scalable intervention for each early-alert reason. These pathways function like a manual for all staff who are responsible for responding to early alerts and keeping students on track.
The key to Mercy’s intervention pathways is that they focus on arming staff with clear next steps and on scalability, so leaders limit the scope of interventions to what is consistently achievable for staff, even in periods where their time is limited (like registration). Mercy’s Intervention Pathways streamline early-alert interventions by making follow-up efficient and consistent, but they’re flexible enough to allow student success staff to use their best judgement to provide care to students. Leaders view intervention pathways as helpful guides and guardrails—and a means to ensure a timely and coordinated response.
Early-alert programs are crucial for surfacing at-risk students, and when they operate successfully, they deliver proven benefits for retention and graduation rates. But early-alert programs will continue to face criticism and skepticism if we don’t take steps to make them more focused, accessible, and coordinated. By carefully defining program goals, maximizing faculty participation, and standardizing follow-up responses, schools can better catch students before they slip through the cracks—and ultimately deliver a greater return on education.