Using data to support student well-being

Powering innovations

When students go to college, they often leave a safety net of support they've had for most of their lives. While professors and advisors serve as vital mentors, their attention is split between various responsibilities and increasingly virtual classes. Student well-being is in an ongoing crisis at a time in which many of the standard support tools are out of reach.

After undergoing radical changes in 2020, institutions must determine a new “normal” for their campus community in 2021. Just as learning models have been transformed across the world, student well-being support methods must evolve in turn, adapting to increasingly hybrid institutions at which advisors may never meet their advisees in person. Without face-to-face interventions, experts in higher education agree that monitoring student engagement and using that data will be critical to improving outcomes in the coming years. With the right methodology, institutions can create reliable networks of support across departments, providing vital resources to all students, exactly when they need them.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, “The overall persistence rate dropped two percentage points to 73.9 percent for fall 2019 beginning college students, its lowest level since 2012.” In the face of ongoing pandemic-related challenges, institutions are reimagining retention strategies across campus, whether in-person or virtual. Comprehensive engagement plans combine personal communication with scalable response systems to support the students that need it the most. But in increasingly hybrid learning environments, how do you identify students in need? That’s where data comes in.

Taking a holistic view of student well-being

While the term “at-risk” has sparked debate in the education community—with alternatives such as “at-promise” being discussed, or a move away from comparable labels altogether—the term has historically described students who may have a higher probability of needing academic intervention. That probability can be difficult to calculate even in the best of circumstances, leaving little time for faculty to react when necessary. With the help of a full lifecycle CRM platform, data can inform proactive engagement, automating response systems for the entire student body and communicating needs to the appropriate advisors.

It’s critical to view each piece of data as exactly that: one part of the whole student experience. Like all data, at-risk categories can be used responsibly to support student and institutional goals, but they can also be mishandled. Belonging to an at-risk category alone is not a clear indication that a student needs additional support, nor should it be used to generalize identity groups. Instead, when used to develop personalized support plans, this information can direct advisors to the most appropriate resources.

Student well-being centers are often the main source of on-campus support, but that doesn’t mean they’re alone in their mission. Colleges and universities are already tracking data with the potential to effectively connect students with the resources they need. By putting that data into action, institutions can create networks of advisors, faculty, and support staff all working toward the common goal of positive learning outcomes. As institutions have mapped out strategies to retain students during the COVID-19 pandemic, the benefits of personalized communication have become increasingly clear. That “personal touch” is still an effective technique, though its form may vary. Automated responses will never replace guided, targeted advising, but effective data use can create a digital safety net, ensuring no student slips through the cracks.

Student on campus

Four types of data points that empower staff and improve student well-being

1. Student performance and engagement

Academic activity is often the first metric advisors use to evaluate success, as the path to graduation is paved with passing grades and consistent attendance. While advisors can react to low performance with additional resources, academic support begins long before the first day of class. By looking at a student’s prior use of tutoring services, remediation records, and high school GPAs, a data-informed advisor can create proactive support plans to best fit each student.

Classes aren’t the only measure of student well-being. Community-building and on-campus engagement are other key metrics. When participation wanes in clubs and student activities, the underlying reasons can vary, prompting advisors to reach out and determine the correct resources to provide. Alternatively, a student who is overloaded with extracurricular activities may benefit from paring down their commitments to focus on the organizations that are most important to them.

Social support may take different forms during the pandemic, shifting more virtually, but a sense of community remains vital to student persistence. Through data-informed mentorship, faculty can embrace a more active role in keeping students engaged and on track.

Data in action

To understand how different types of data are used to support student well-being, we can apply them to hypothetical scenarios, such as the one below.

Molly is a second-year student who recently changed her major to computer science. Eager to fulfill her degree requirements, she packs her schedule with necessary math courses. Molly’s advisor sees that she struggled with statistics last year, and recommends she use on-campus tutoring services to stay on track for graduation. To ensure the tutor is helping Molly’s performance, the advisor can monitor her assignment grades in relation to how often she uses those services.

Molly keeps up with her coursework for the first eight weeks, but her advisor sees a dip in assignment grades around the time she stopped seeing the tutor. With this information at their disposal, the advisor may recommend Molly resume tutoring for the rest of the semester.

Student performance and engagement metrics to track:

  • Grade point average
  • Assignment grades
  • Discussion board activity
  • Student club membership
  • ACT/SAT scores
  • Use of tutoring services
  • Class attendance

2. Financial information

Financial worries create significant obstacles to completion, which has only been exacerbated by COVID-19. In a study conducted by the HEDS Consortium in 2020, students are increasingly worried about meeting basic needs, with 38% of those surveyed concerned about paying bills, 21% about having a safe place to sleep, and 15% about having enough to eat day-to-day.

Student Information Systems (SIS) enable financial aid officers to guide students through every step of the aid process, not only ensuring all the logistical boxes get checked, but also identifying best-fit applicants for scholarship opportunities.

A modern SIS can go beyond financial aid advice, however. For example, the state of Oregon may soon introduce “benefits navigators” as a requirement for public colleges to alleviate food and housing insecurity within campus communities. By tracking access to meal plans, qualification for public assistance, and housing status, institutions can share that information with the appropriate parties to best connect students with resources on campus and beyond.

Data in action

An academic advisor notices one of their students, Jeff, has a hold on his account because of an overdue bill. The hold exacerbates Jeff’s financial precarity, as he needs an official copy of his transcript for upcoming scholarship applications. Using a CRM platform, the advisor can coordinate directly with the financial aid office, who may recommend Jeff enroll in a tuition payment plan. Once the hold is removed, Jeff can then apply for additional scholarships to help fund his education.

Student financial security metrics to track:

  • Financial aid status
  • Scholarship eligibility
  • Meal plan usage
  • Housing information
  • Qualification for public assistance

3. Identification with underrepresented groups

According to a study cited by University Business, “First-generation students are 1.3 times more likely than their peers, whose parents experienced higher education, to leave an institution during their initial year.” Without familial experience in navigating college, these students may need additional guidance to succeed.

First-generation students represent a large at-risk population, but they’re not the only underrepresented group that could benefit from targeted support. Historically, students of color, non-traditional or “later-in-life” students, and veterans are among the groups who may feel alienated on campus.

While the Glossary of Education Reform cautions against “overgeneralizations that may stigmatize students” in identifying at-risk categories, when seen holistically, this matriculation data can inform institutions on how to best support a diverse campus community.

Data in action

Regina and Natalya are both international students with the same academic advisor. Coincidentally, they are both showing unusually low engagement and attendance rates in their first semester. Seeing this, the advisor reaches out to them individually to develop personalized response plans, and may ask if they have sources of community on campus.

Regina is active in several identity-based student organizations that provide her a robust support network, but Natalya discloses feelings of isolation. By talking through each of their specific needs, the advisor may determine that an absence of community is presenting an engagement challenge for Natalya as an international student, but that may not be the case for Regina. With this knowledge, the advisor can guide each student to the most helpful resources.

Data to track on historically underrepresented groups in higher education:

  • First-generation students
  • People of color
  • Veterans
  • International students

4. Accessibility needs

Many students struggled with accessibility challenges long before 2020, but the past few semesters have underscored how one-size-fits-all learning models fail to provide an inclusive education. Instead of seeking universal solutions, institutions must instead use data to track and meet the specific accommodations of each student.

“The pandemic has accelerated the conversation about disability accommodations on college campuses,” the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, “as requests long labeled impossible, such as remote learning and recorded lectures, were universally adopted overnight.” Whether or not these changes will hold true is a question for every institution to answer as they consider what it means for education to return to “normal.”

Whether classes are conducted in person or remotely, accommodations can be as unique as the students they support. By tracking accessibility needs, advisors can ensure that all their students are equipped for success before the start of each semester.

Data in action

Thomas is a returning student with a chronic illness. Virtual learning has allowed him to record lectures and engage with the material when he is feeling well enough to do so. Returning to in-person classes presents a challenge for Thomas, who worries his health will cause him to miss lectures and fall behind. A data-informed advisor will see that recordings are a necessary accommodation for Thomas to succeed and can help him coordinate that resource with his professors.

Data on specific accommodations that can be recorded in an SIS:

  • Use of transcription services
  • Wheelchair-accessible equipment
  • Screen-reading software
  • Flexible assignment scheduling
  • Lecture recordings

Student wellness activities

While personalized advising is the best and most reliable method for supporting student well-being, institutions can provide regularly scheduled wellness activities to help alleviate stress and encourage self-care practices across the campus community.

If a portion of your student body is learning remotely, consider offering at-home or virtual variations of these activities. Additionally, for accessibility reasons, consider providing a range of options with varying levels of physical engagement so all students can benefit from these programs.

Here are a few examples of student wellness activities to offer at your institution:

  • In-person and/or on-demand yoga classes
  • Guided meditation recordings
  • Stress-management workshops
  • Open mental health discussions, led by trained counselors
  • Therapy dog days

Build support systems that will last

While student success depends on a variety of factors, institutions can provide personalized support at-scale with the right advising platform. By leveraging key data, advisors can use holistic views of their students’ experiences to coordinate timely action across departments and promote well-being for every member of the community.

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