Want to increase retention rates? This health care model may hold the answer

MTSU's retention secret: Finding the right students to focus resources on

Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) has boosted its retention rates by adopting a strategy from the health care industry, Andrew Barbour reports for eCampus News

Since 2014, MTSU has been working with EAB to apply the principles of population health management (PHM) to student retention rates.

Under the PHM model, differing levels of support are provided to three patient groups: low risk, rising risk, and high risk. The goal is to make the best use of limited resources, with lesser and greater amounts of care offered at each end of the spectrum. But it's the middle group that has the most potential to shift health outcomes over time.

"These rising-risk patients may have an identifiable condition, such as diabetes, but perhaps it's not a problem right now," says Ed Venit, a senior director at EAB. "If health care providers catch the problem through some really aggressive monitoring, they can prevent them from moving into the high-risk category." 

What can population health management teach us about student success?

Using predictive analytics, EAB has helped MTSU pinpoint the factors affecting its own "rising risk" group of students. Retention rates at the university had remained stagnant over the past 20 years. But in just one year, the number of students returning for the spring semester rose by 400.

Academic performance is one of MTSU's key indicators for at-risk students. According to Rick Sluder, vice provost for student success at the university, many students who earn a 2.0 or 3.0 GPA drop out. The university seeks to identify students with drop-out risks such as downward-trending GPAs, missing critical courses, or taking courses out of sequence in a major.

In addition to grouping students based on their risk levels, the university has tailored their support services to each faction.

"The old advising approach meant serving only those students who appeared in front of you," Sluder says. "New advising means looking at these risk groups and doing outreach campaigns to bring them in and then driving them to the services they need."

But like in health care, the bulk of resources are directed toward students identified as being at rising risk of dropping out. Universities tend to invest heavily in students at low risk of dropping out—the ones most likely to visit advisors. But those students may only need small nudges in the right direction to stay on track. 

Learn how Guide can nudge students toward better academic choices

High-touch advising is a major component of increasing retention rates among rising-risk students.

"Studies have proven again and again that the more attention you devote to this population, the better they do," Venit says. "You've got to surround that student with care much like you surround a high-risk medical patient."

MTSU hired 47 advisors to work in newly created advising centers in each of the university's eight colleges. Previously, the traditional advisor-to-student ratio at MTSU was 1:200, with faculty members responsible for a great deal of advising. Now the ratio is 1:240, with dedicated advisors directly connected to faculty, chairs, and deans. 

Meeting student demand for high-touch advising

Advisors have become more proactive, reaching out to students, referring them for tutoring, and directing them to necessary departments and campus organizations. The university also now offers tutoring and pre-tutoring for more than 180 courses each semester (Barbour, eCampus News, 7/14). 

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