The health care strategy that helped a university raise retention rates in one year

First, identify the students at high, medium, and low risk

Higher education leaders can serve students more efficiently by borrowing techniques from population health management, Carl Straumsheim reports for Inside Higher Ed.

In an article for Inside Higher Ed, Carl Straumsheim asks a senior director at EAB how population health management principles help colleges and universities decide how to allocate student support resources.

"It becomes an efficiency issue," says Ed Venit, an EAB senior director. "How thin are we going to spread ourselves? If we're unable to provide adequate care for these students, our outcomes will fail."

Venit says the approach builds on research that EAB's Student Success Collaborative originally presented at its 2015 Summit: Connected.

Learn more about the research: How health care can teach you to improve student success

Population health management teaches administrators to break the group they serve into low, medium, and high risk clusters based on various characteristics. Then, they can target each group with customized types and levels of support.

To get started, Venit recommends four steps:

1. Determine what factors put students in each risk group;
2. Develop support strategies for each group;
3. Identify software that helps advisors monitor student progress; and
4. Assign someone to be accountable for improving student success.

The risk groups

The first step is to identify students who are at high, medium, and low risk. In higher education, unlike in health care, the size and characteristics of each risk group likely vary from institution to institution, Venit says. However, there a few common trends.

In health care populations, about 70% of the population tends to be at low risk. In higher education, the students at low risk can successfully navigate to graduation with the help of self-service portals and automated progress notifications.

The next 25% are "risking risk," or medium risk.

"I use diabetics as an example," Venit says. "This is someone with an identifiable condition. They might not be sick today, but they might have trouble in the future."

The equivalent in higher education would be students who go to class regularly but haven't finished financial aid paperwork or registered for next semester's courses.

"You want to catch problems before they escalate and nip them in the bud," Venit says.

In health care, the last 5% or so of the population tends to be at high risk. Although even in higher education this is usually the smallest group, it tends to absorb most of the resources. These students might be part of a particular cohort, such as first-generation students, be on academic probation, or have other high-risk factors.

How one university used the strategy

Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) began following a population health management plan in fall 2014—and in a single year they raised their fall-to-spring retention of first-time freshmen and sophomores by 3.4 percentage points.

MTSU leaders realized they needed to make a change after learning that about 70% of freshmen who earned a GPA below 2.0 did not return for their second year, and that students who earned between a 2.0 and 3.0 GPA in their freshman year were unlikely to persist to graduation.

To tackle the issue, the school joined EAB's Student Success Collaborative and revamped its advising program, hiring 47 advisors. Now each college has its own advising manager, and the university has an overall advisor-to-student ratio of 1 to 300.

"When you've got those ratios, what you can do is use analytics ... so that [advisors] can focus on those students where the biggest gains can be made," says Richard Sluder, vice provost for student success.

To learn more about how to become a part of our Student Success Collaborative, request a demo

Ideally, advisors will spend 70% of their time with high-risk students.

MTSU also implemented an early-warning system that alerts advisors if students don't enroll in key courses for their majors, enroll in course sequences out of order, or receive a low grade in an important class.

MTSU was an early adopter of the strategy—but Venit says the approach is becoming more popular among the Student Success Collaborative's members.

"We have dozens of other schools looking at MTSU's results and adopting some of the population health management tactics. There's a lot of interest in realigning their strategies around these principles," he says. "It’s something that we will continue to build on with our SSC members" (Straumsheim, Inside Higher Ed, 4/19).

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