David Yaskin is the CEO and Founder of Starfish Retention Solutions, a provider of student success systems, and a member of the Higher Education Management Group, of Linked In.

KCH: I’ve had the opportunity to review the approach to retention taken by a few universities. I was struck by the degree to which the response to the problem is uncoordinated, almost ad hoc. While most universities are highly decentralized on academic issues, retention appears to be particularly so. Yet, it is clear that retention is of great social importance, as well as significant drain on institutional resources. Is this ad hoc approach common?

Through our direct conversations with literally hundreds of institutions, including our participation in the recent IMS project on student retention, I can tell you it is common.

As you mentioned, institutions are very decentralized, department-driven organizations where student records are often paper-based.  In addition, schools have not routinely placed accountability for retention on an individual within the administration – but rather have spread the charge across a group of people including academic affairs, first year experience, residential and varied student services.logo-starfish-master-RGB.torquise

Contrast this for a minute with admissions, the other end of the funnel.  The focus within Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM) has typically been on admissions – getting students in the seats.  Reams of data and objective metrics, supported by powerful technology tools, provide the foundation for almost any institution’s admissions programs.  Highly coordinated, thoughtful, and measured.

Interestingly, retention now is starting to have the same things.  New technology is available and in use at schools across the country to help them identify in real-time which students are under performing, and then connect them to the support resources that studies have shown improve student success.  Starfish is just one of those technology providers.

President Obama has called on our nation to increase our graduation rates.   Students deserve every opportunity, and schools have a mission – as well as a financial opportunity – to help students stay in school and be successful.

KCH: Many governments are taking steps to increase participation rates in post-secondary education. This will inevitably increase the number of under-prepared and academically at-risk students in the system. What role can technology play in managing this challenge?

There is tremendous opportunity for institutions to leverage technology to help manage this challenge.  Given their open-access mission, community colleges have seen the largest uptick in enrollments, yet these students are typically the least prepared for the college experience – a situation only exasperated by the economic crisis.

A recent report, “Imagine Success,” released by the Survey of Entering Student Engagement (SENSE) found that entering community college students are most likely to succeed when expectations are set high and when they receive the support they need to achieve at a high level.  This includes financial aid advising, academic support (e.g., tutoring and skill labs) and social support to help students overcome feelings of isolation when facing challenges.  Survey data further indicates that nearly a third of entering community college students are unaware of key student services during the first three weeks of college – the time that is most critical to their success.

Interestingly most student services are utilized by “walk-ins” – students who are seeking help.  What about those who don’t seek help?  Technology can help make these resources more accessible to students.  Starfish offers technology that identifies in real time which students are having trouble based on criteria that the school specifies, such as a low test grade, missed assignments, or poor attendance.     The system then securely notifies the student’s instructor, advisors and other members of their support network that a flag has been raised.  The student is automatically invited in for the appropriate help and can go online to schedule dedicated time to get that help.  We are bringing the resources directly to students who need them.

KCH: Academic advisors often lament that students don’t use the support services that are available. How do we avoid investing in services that are ultimately under-utilized?

This is perhaps the greatest value of technology – helping schools assess which services are most effective at meeting the needs of a student population.  Technology can help analyze student success activity vs. student outcomes, in other words, what impact did going to tutoring have on the student’s ultimate outcome.  It can also provide demographic analysis, for example, are male students more or less likely to go to academic advising.  Data points like these, and many others, lead to process improvements and service enhancements – ensuring that you’re deploying your resources where they will have the greatest impact.

It’s interesting.  Some of our clients have found that it is often their successful students, those making A’s and B’s, that are going to tutoring, not the ones who are having academic trouble.  Using the early identification tools within Starfish, schools are able to identify which students need help, and then  proactively provide that help, in a way that feels safe, protected and nurtured.

KCH: David, you worked close to a decade with Blackboard, one of the major ed tech companies. How has that experience prepared you for leading Starfish Retention Solutions?

That’s right.  I was responsible for Blackboard’s product strategy for a number of years, during a time that educational technology was experiencing phenomenal growth.  My experience at Blackboard was exceptional, preparing me to lead Starfish Retention Solutions in a number of ways.  Primarily, the interaction with so many institutions, the insights, the friendships within academe as well as the technology community – have provided a wonderful environment to create Starfish.

In addition, Blackboard taught me the importance of listening to faculty.  Faculty are the gateway to the success of most campus initiatives.  That said, faculty are experts in their field of study.  It isn’t their job to necessarily learn every new computer program that comes out.  I think that arguably one of the biggest factors in Blackboard’s success was putting easy to use tools in the hands of faculty.  Starfish has taken this cue from Blackboard by investing countless hours to make it easy for faculty to access our tools, easy for them to use, and most importantly, for them to know that their efforts in using our system has had an effect on the lives of their students.  After all, no matter how well intentioned something is, if it isn’t used, then it is of no value.  Starfish gets this.  It is part of our DNA.

1 Comment

  1. As the former member of the senior management team in a university setting and as a faculty member your article hits many of the key issues facing higher education and the retention puzzle. However I believe I have seen, and now experience it in our consulting practice that many institution haven’t a clue as to how to retain students. It is not the classes or the programs of study, or even the professors that tie students to the institution. It is simply the affiliations that are developed with student run organizations. The ties come from the relationships and the success of these student organizations in establishing the community.

    The average University spends about $3500 per year in total for developing student organization leadership and programs. The fact is that for the attraction and retention of students, student run organizations can be the biggest asset or the biggest liability.

    Why spend literally hundreds of thousands of recruiting dollars and nothing on the things that really capture the hearts and minds of students. As the dean of a school of business I have seen a dramatic shift in retention when a little attention was paid to such things as professional orgs, student government, fraternal and sorority orders and student clubs. When leadership is developed to sustain these organizations student tend to stay

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