UA outreach effort strives to keep more students in class


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Shaunta Thornton, center, is a speaker for the University of Alaska Coalition of Student Leaders. She is actively involved in the Strategic Direction Initiative undertaken by the UA to improve its performance and retain more students.

Photo/Courtesy/University of Alaska

Shauna Thornton was walking down a hall on campus one day when she spotted a man who appeared to be in his late 30s, sitting at a desk in a corner. The man looked downcast, so she approached him.

“He told me it was the last day to drop classes before getting charged, and his financial aid wasn’t there yet,” said Thornton, a full-time online student at Kenai Peninsula College, part of the University of Alaska system. “He was trying to figure out whether to give it up or keep going. I just scooped him up, hauled him to the office and said, ‘You’re not going to just quit.’ If I hadn’t happened to be paying attention, I probably wouldn’t have noticed. What’s sad is, it happens every day. If I hadn’t seen him, what would have happened?”

Thornton’s observation resonates because she serves as speaker for the UA Coalition of Student Leaders; is a single mother of two teen daughters; works two jobs; gets involved in her community and avidly supports the UA system’s Strategic Direction Initiative, also known as SDI.

Thornton — along with other students and UA administrators, professors, advisors and staff — is helping mold SDI, which seeks to drill deep into the culture and practices of UA’s component universities, and the system as a whole, to reveal which academic, bureaucratic and everyday-routine practices work, which don’t and which should be tweaked, overhauled or simply tossed.

The UA system contains three major campuses—located in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Southeast (Juneau) — with community campuses in Ketchikan, Sitka, Valdez, Cordova, Mat-Su, Eagle River, Nome, Kotzebue, Bethel, Dillingham, Kodiak, Soldotna, Homer and Seward. It employs 8,000 people — 4,300 of them full time.

The architects of SDI have far-reaching goals, including reaching back and partnering with Alaska’s secondary schools so students are prepared, on day one, for the challenges of college; using research and development as tools to fuel economic growth in Alaska; helping incoming students quickly and affordably access the educational opportunities they need for the well-paying jobs they want; removing administrative obstacles that could prevent them from progressing smoothly through their classes and working with the public and private sectors to position successful students as the most ideally educated candidates for careers contributing to Alaska’s economy.

“How can courses be presented in new ways that are more appealing and motivating?” UA President Pat Gamble said. “How can teaching and learning be made more effective in order to provide better outcomes? Those are the questions we’ve been asking ourselves. We are committed to improving student output, and we are well-positioned on the front side of a growing wave to surf this effort forward. We are taking advantage of opportunities we see working well on the national scene as well as developing ideas right here in Alaska.”

Gamble says the university is currently entering the final phase of the SDI process, after sifting through hundreds of pages of information received in studies, reports, and from 80 listening sessions conducted in communities and on UA campuses across Alaska.

“In phase two we collated and categorized all that information,” he said. “Comments tended to cluster in certain areas, which eventually resulted in five distinct themes. From there, we dug further and deeper into each one. By doing that, we were able to begin asking the hard questions — ‘Why are we doing this? Is there a way we can do this better?’”

The five SDI themes are

• Student achievement and attainment;

• Productive partnerships with Alaska’s schools;

• Productive partnerships with Alaska’s public and private industries;

• Research and development to build and sustain Alaska’s communities and economic growth;

• Accountability to the people of Alaska.

The third and toughest phase of SDI, Gamble said, is the “doing” phase.

“Our chancellors are each engaged in the process of tackling specific initiatives,” he said. “Some initiatives will require resources of different types. There are people, money, and internal efficiencies involved in this process. We’ll question our doing anything that’s ineffective or of marginal value. There will probably be significant internal shifting and adjusting.”

Efficiencies will include a host of possibilities, such as consolidating the three universities’ separate email systems and reviewing programs to see how the university can provide the best overall value for students.

“Online courses options are very much a part of the review,” Gamble said.

Focus on retention

A key element of SDI is keeping students in school. A 1 percent increase in overall student credit hours generates an additional $1.2 million, according to UA’s budget office. In the past, it was difficult for advisors to track and help find solutions for students whose personal, financial or academic struggles prompted them to drop classes or even drop out of the university altogether.

Last year, the Alaska State Legislature awarded the university $1.1 million to improve academic advising. Each campus immediately began putting in place additional academic strategies to keep more students in school.

• The University of Alaska Southeast launched a retention program that included an enhanced academic-early-alert system. UAS advisors have since seen an increase in the number of student early alerts they can immediately respond to.

• The University of Alaska Fairbanks, last semester, intensified its academic advising and expanded student support services. UAF’s efforts already appear to be bearing fruit. Nearly 70 percent of the students advised were either first-generation or lower-income students, or both. Students in those normally higher-risk categories accounted for 188 hours of additional tutoring UAF was able to offer through student support services, and the interventions worked.

• The University of Alaska Anchorage in 2011 began testing MAP-Works, an academic-advising software program, with 400 students. The test worked well. Last fall, UAA was able to use its portion of the legislative appropriation to expand the MAP-Works outreach to more than 5,500 students, and intends to expand the outreach even further.

Through MAP-Works, students can exchange confidential messages with their advisors in a way that’s similar to communicating via Facebook. The messages are recorded, and an advisor can scan many messages looking for keywords like “drop out.”

“It flags those keywords and pops them up to the advisors,” Gamble said. “It’s an indicator that a student is having a problem. An advisor can react immediately and find out what’s happening with the student in near real time. Maybe the student isn’t planning to come back next semester because of family, or financial circumstances UA can help overcome.

“In the old system, we wouldn’t have known that. We may have never noticed this good student never returned. But now, because the student is flagged and quickly responded to, there is a much increased opportunity for an academic advisor to keep that student in school.”

The cost to the university from students who drop out of UA is significant. That’s another reason intervention is critical — getting to the student before major decisions are made.

“We would lose students for reasons we never knew about and we had almost no opportunity to save them,” Gamble said. “When they would go out the door, they would take along with them everything: loans, grants and we never had a chance to unlock their potential for an education that could greatly improve their quality of life. A lot of student value still goes out the door today, especially in the first two years. But if we can support them through the initial basic courses, the attrition rate later really drops off.”

Gamble likened the university’s SDI effort to taking a car in for service.

“It’s the same faithful ride, but it looks better, runs better, responds better,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll continue to receive the strong support for SDI we have seen so far across Alaska.”

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