Whatever your institution’s mission statement, educational philosophy and business goals, there are two metrics that you’re almost certain to care about. First, how can you maximize enrollment from the student population you’re targeting? And second, how can you ensure that as many of your students as possible achieve their learning goals and graduate successfully?
Those two issues have come into even sharper focus during the COVID-19 crisis. Many schools, colleges, and universities have struggled to maintain their student intake or pivot successfully to a remote-first teaching model that keeps students engaged.
However, there are a few outliers who have bucked that trend—and Northeastern Technical College (NETC) is one of them. When I had the opportunity to interview the NETC team, I was fascinated to learn how they had become the only college in South Carolina to grow its enrollment during the toughest semesters of the pandemic.
Interview with NETC
What does NETC offer that’s different from other colleges?
Dr. Kyle Wagner, President of NETC: We have a service area that covers several rural counties in South Carolina, where many people have been underserved in terms of education.
Our number-one goal is to reach the students who have never had the chance to go to college and show them how technical education can open up better career opportunities right there in their local community.
People who don’t have a great GPA in high school often think they can’t go and talk to colleges. We seek those people out and tell them how we can help them become successful, get them exposed to better-paying jobs and empower them to embark on a lifelong journey to do what they’re passionate about.
What is the secret to attracting students from underserved communities and keeping them engaged?
Dr. Wagner: There are so many issues that you need to think about. For example, more than 80% of our student body is classified as first-generation, so they don’t have anyone in their family who can help them navigate the college experience.
That means that as faculty, we’ve got to be the mentor and guide to help our students get through their programs and succeed. So constant contact and engagement is crucial.
When COVID-19 hit, we needed to be able to provide all that guidance and mentorship online, which meant we had to address internet accessibility as a priority issue. We immediately started working with our internet providers to identify which students had internet access at home and which didn’t.
We found that most of the time, it was a financial issue that kept students from having internet access, so we enacted a lot of changes in our college so that we could afford to pay for internet connections for students who needed them.
As a result, we kept our existing students engaged—and we also saw a trend for family members of those students to sign up for courses too, because they now had access to NETC in their own homes.
That’s where we really started broadening our horizons and thinking about what online learning can do beyond just teaching courses—how we could use it to communicate with students and bring the college into their homes.
D2L Brightspace is central to this strategy because it’s become the main way we communicate with students. It gives our students a single place where they can go to class, check their assignments and have direct contact with their teachers—and if they have any issues or we need to reach out to them, it all happens in Brightspace.
How did you help faculty members and administrators take on that extra role—not just teaching classes, but also acting as mentors for students?
Dr. Wagner: It’s a combination of training and technology, and once again, our Brightspace platform plays an important role.
For example, we’ve developed a course in Brightspace for all our faculty and staff on the mission and educational strategy of the college, so everyone can see how their work contributes to student learning outcomes and student experience. So, whether you work in admissions, advising, financial aid, HR, the business office or on the faculty, you’re clear on what we’re trying to achieve and how everything works together.
In addition, we’re using the data and analytics tools in Brightspace to help faculty identify students who are struggling with progression and to monitor their attendance. If they think a student is at risk, they can use the platform to engage with our student services team to provide additional advice, guidance, tutoring, and so on.
Christi Meggs, Director of HR: We also used Brightspace to set up a bonus program for all our faculty and staff, and it monitors six key performance indicators: enrollment, retention, professional development, community involvement and a couple of metrics that are specific to each department.
During the first year, we met our targets for both enrollment and retention, and we even hit our enrollment stretch goal. So even during COVID-19, at a time when most colleges were having difficulties, we grew our enrollment by 4.4% and increased retention by 5.2%. We’re very proud of those outcomes, and we were delighted to win an HR Innovation Award from the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources as a result.
Learn More About NETC’s Story
As I learned from my conversation with the NETC team, providing the right technology, training, and incentives can be a powerful lever to help institutions achieve their strategic goals around enrollment and retention.
But NETC’s innovative use of Brightspace doesn’t stop there. The college is also running an interesting initiative to reduce the cost of textbooks by adopting Open Educational Resources (OERs) and has exciting plans for the future.
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