What are some of the biggest issues related to student retention and how are they impacting educational institutions today? To answer that question, we turned to Shah Ardalan, President of Lone Star College-University Park, one of the fastest growing and most innovative colleges in the United States. Currently, the Lone Star College System (LSCS) enrolls about 95,000 students. Lone Star College-University Park (established 2012) is the LSCS’s newest and fastest growing college with nearly 10,000 students.
“Student retention and success go hand in hand and it is one of the greatest challenges we see among students today, specifically in the community college setting,” says Ardalan. Students come to college with a lot of responsibilities outside the classroom. They are busy juggling life, family, and financial pressures and it can be difficult for them to find a balance. He adds, “As the old saying goes, ‘life happens’ and students have to leave the classroom, or work two jobs. As a progressive college, we offer students an open-door approach without watering down the quality of instruction.”
Many of Lone Star College’s students are the first in their family to pursue postsecondary education of any kind.* That adds cultural and familial pressures into the mix.
Ardalan explains, “Even if the family has the money for that individual to attend school, the student’s parents may not be supportive. To realize their educational goals, students have to work or take out loans.” A significant number of these students are from language backgrounds other than English, so there is also a language barrier that must be overcome for them to succeed in a college course or program.*
Even the definition of student success is a challenge in the US higher education system, Ardalan admits. “Everyone from parents, to a university, to a college, to the student has a different interpretation of what it means to be successful.” He explains, “Historically, our public, funding, and educational systems have turned to the definition of student success provided by the university. And in that interpretation, success means getting a degree and walking out the door. However, the majority of students are not here to get an associate degree. They may come to us to transfer, or acquire a skill, or achieve a level of certification. These students don’t conform to the traditional definition of success and yet they still have goals and they still receive excellent value.”
Ardalan points out that one of the fastest-growing populations in community colleges are students who already have a bachelor’s degree and have returned to college to become more employable. “We have a product they want and students are voting with their feet. Businesses, industry, and chambers of commerce are now recognizing the value of community colleges and their role in improving our economic well-being.”
“While the emphasis is always on success and on student retention, sometimes student does not return to school for interesting reasons,” says Ardalan. “Recently, we had a business team visiting our Energy & Manufacturing Institute, where we are developing students with specific and very valuable expertise. Once the visitors realized the quality of the instruction, they hired all the students in the classroom on the spot. Based on traditional definitions, this would have killed my retention and graduation rates, but at the same time, those students reached their goals. They got a job. So, as a college, we fulfilled our mission.” To help them with their careers, we would approach them with our stackable credentials through our online and hybrid offerings.
The issue of student success and retention has been a priority to, and on the radar of, Lone Star College for more than a decade. As a result, the college has invested in technology to assess retention and better understand what’s going on with its students. “When we did our visioning, we took a hard look at the data and realized we need to be more aggressive than ever,” Ardalan says. “If our economy needs to grow, our college needs to take responsibility for supporting and leading that economic growth by making sure that people have access to the education and training they need. Over the last decade or so, we have placed much more emphasis and resources on the student analytics, so we make better decisions and can measure the impacts.”
Lone Star College System has appointed an Associate Vice Chancellor of Student Success who leads a team of professionals totally focused on student success programs and services. Strategic and operational leadership at each one of the six colleges is provided by their Vice President for Student Success. Lone Star College was also instrumental in creating an entire student success initiative for the State of Texas. Ardalan explains, “When we talk about student success, we mean it. We have translated talk into action and have made student success part of our culture.”
One example is the college’s patented and award-winning Education and Career Positioning System (ECPS).
“Millions of students in the US today have some level of education but never finished school,” says Ardalan. “The trouble is understanding what happened to those students. ECPS is like a global positioning system (GPS) for educational progress and for career choices. It helps our students determine their career path by having them envision different scenarios. Then, in ECPS, they can plan that career and the educational path that will lead them there.”
Lone Star College-University Park’s incoming students are now leveraging ECPS to understand their future career path. This broadens the students’ view, allows them to share and discuss with family and friends, and takes their conversation with the academic and career advisors to a whole new level. “Data analytics and this form of ‘intentional advising’ has become part of our culture,” says Ardalan. “Because the students who really need our help aren’t necessarily the ones who call, this empowers them to make better decisions” he adds.
Is it working? Absolutely. Despite their tremendous growth, Lone Star College-University Park estimates that the ECPS initiative has helped achieve measurable improvement in student retention.*
If you’re interested in reading more of Shah Ardalan’s perspectives and exploring the topic of student retention, download our eBook Staying on Course to learn more about how you can address the retention challenge at your institution.