Successful mixed race man in headset, student support specialist sitting in a modern office and talking to a student, smile

Calbright Is Testing New Ways to Keep Online Students Engaged and on Track – and It’s Getting Results.

At Calbright, getting admitted to college is incredibly simple: we accept every Californian over 18 who has a high school diploma or equivalent. That’s it. We’re funded by the state of California and don’t charge any tuition or fees, so there are no financial aid forms to fill out or hoops to jump through. 

Colleges don’t have to make admissions complicated or hard at all.

But keeping students in college through graduation can be much harder. This is especially true for non-traditional students like working adults or first generation college students. It’s even more true with online classes, which typically have lower retention rates than traditional colleges. 

Part of Calbright’s mission is to figure out how to reach non-traditional students and keep them on track. We’ve demonstrated that we can do the first part: 92% of Calbright’s students are 25 or older, which is more than double the California Community Colleges system’s rate. 22% of our students identify as Black, 33% as Latinx, 13% as Asian, 5% as Native American, and 2% as Pacific Islander. We’re obviously reaching a diverse student body. 

But with all the pressures of modern life how do we help keep them on track in an online program?

What We Know Works

Calbright is a free online community college that offers a competency-based education model –  all of our classes are entirely remote and self-paced. Students work wherever they are, on their own time, in whatever way works best for them. But we also know that while some students excel in solitary learning, most students benefit from feeling like they’re not doing it alone. As a result, Calbright makes sure that every student has a team of dedicated staff and faculty on their side. People whose names they know and contact information they have and who it’s okay to check in with, any time, about almost anything. 

We also use programs like Slack to allow students to connect directly with one another, forming study groups, comparing notes on the program, and just having people there to socialize with. Calbright provides a supportive, dedicated, community – using technology to connect people, rather than isolate them. 

It’s standard operating procedure at Calbright: connect wherever possible. Some students, like Denise, say the accessibility of staff and faculty made learning much easier. Other students, like David, say that it not only helped them with their studies but provided a significant lifeline for their mental health.  

We also know that providing intensive support at the beginning of a student’s journey is essential for a strong start.  Our Outreach Department, Enrollment Services, Counseling Department and Instruction areas work collaboratively to make this happen for students. Once a student has decided to enroll, our Enrollment Services provides the necessary support to finish the application process successfully. Then the student attends an interactive onboarding with a counselor and one of our student support specialists works through their comprehensive student education plan, expectations for progress, and resources available to support students throughout their journey. Students then sign up to attend their program kickoff with an instructional faculty member and sign up for their first one on one counseling meeting with their counselor. At the program kickoff, students learn more about their program, navigating the learning management system, and instructional supports available. Counselors provide intensive weekly outreach to students for the first four weeks to ensure a strong start to the students academic journey at Calbright College. After the first four weeks, counselors provide targeted ongoing support to students. 

Calbright also has a roster of state and local services that it can connect students to: everything from mental health counseling to legal services and housing crisis support. We emphasize, from the very first moment a student joins, that our community can help outside the classroom as well as in. 

What We’re Discovering 

Recently our counseling teams have launched a new, proactive approach to retention.  Each month they identify students who have not logged in to their classes recently, and send notifications to reach out to them and check in.  

That means no students fall through the cracks: if the system notices a student hasn’t been completing coursework, our counselors will be notified and have a protocol in place to reach out.

“Since a vast majority of our students are working adults who are managing a lot of different responsibilities, we wanted to have our outreach impact all programs so that no student is left behind,” said Amandeep Kandola, Calbright’s Dean of Student Success. “We also wanted some standardization, so that every student gets the attention they need and every counselor is ready to offer support as soon as we notice there might be a problem.”

Because students already have an established relationship with their counseling and instructional faculty, they won’t be getting a message from a stranger. Someone will check in who they’ve spoken with before, whose name they know, who has been helpful in the past and who they have a connection to. That makes a huge difference: the time to connect with students is before they’re starting to struggle, not after.

Often there isn’t really a problem: Calbright is designed to have a flexibly paced curriculum that allows students to slow down and speed up based on what’s happening in their life. Maybe someone hasn’t checked in because their child got sick, or they’re taking a family vacation. Maybe they’re going on their honeymoon! Oftentimes students are just taking a pause and will be ready to come back soon.

Other times, however, there is a real problem—or the student has lost confidence in their abilities—and outreach can help. 

Often for these students, one check in isn’t enough.

“We developed a layered approach to outreach to give us the best chance of reaching students who are struggling,” Kandola said. “The counselors worked collaboratively to develop a standardized text message that they could utilize but also personalize, because they know the students.” 

That text message goes out to students who have not logged in for about three weeks. At the same time  Kandola herself reaches out to students with a personalized email for students who have not logged in and worked on an activity in 30-45 days. The Dean of Learning and Instruction, Dan Donaldson, reaches out to students who have not logged in and worked on an activity in 45-60 days. This ensures that students who are academically at risk are provided a touchpoint. 

The student support teams are currently exploring whether to start the process even sooner, with a member of the academic support staff reaching out to students who haven’t logged in within the last two weeks.

“This part is still a work in progress but the goal is to have Academic Support Services potentially call the student,” Kandola said. “If we are able to do that then this utilizes multiple modalities of reaching out to students.”

It Works

The counseling team has improved this approach over the course of the fall, and is seeing better results with each refinement. For October, they had their best results yet: more than half of the students who had not logged and worked on an activity for three to four weeks came back and resumed their studies. 28% of students who had not logged in and worked on an activity in 30-45 days  also came back and kept going. Kandola said it is important to provide intervention to students but it is also equally important to measure the effectiveness of it so that it can  be refined and improved upon.  

Those are tremendous results, and they show us that one of the most intractable problems of online learning, especially with non-traditional students, is, in fact, solvable. If a college is willing to devote the time and resources to know their students personally, and then commit to reaching out when it looks like they might be falling through the cracks, most of them can be retained and continue their work towards a better future.

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