Early Alert Systems: Why the Personal Touch is Key

Blog Post
March 15, 2022

The global health pandemic of COVID-19 has posed an unprecedented challenge on faculty-to-student interactions. With limitations to in-person instruction, faculty now rely more on technology to keep students engaged. In efforts to promote student success during a pandemic, over 80 percent of public two-year and four-year colleges are turning to predictive analytics — such as early alert systems. Yet, online and hybrid learning poses a challenge to the effective use of this technology, as an ideal balance between predictive analytics and human interaction is key.

Early alert systems are communication advocacy tools used for identifying academically at-risk students and improving student retention. These systems are intended to provide wrap-around services to students and help institutions make data-driven decisions to improve their retention and completion rates. Early alert systems have been around for over two decades, primarily among four-year private and public institutions, and more recently growing in popularity amongst community colleges. These systems help institutions be proactive in monitoring at-risk students and intervening to address potential student needs. However, there’s only so much early alerts can do without in-person interventions. With community colleges enrolling primarily underserved students (e.g. Black, Latino, low-income and working adults with families), the impact of alerts without faculty/staff in-person interactions, language in messaging can be misconstrued and have negative effects on students of color compared to their white counterparts.

Amongst higher education institutions, community colleges have been hit the hardest by the pandemic. Enrollment and retention rates have declined at a higher rate and community colleges have not been prioritized under federal relief, such as the CARES Act – only receiving 27 percent of funding to help mitigate the impact of the pandemic on students. In Fall 2020, community colleges saw a 10% decline in enrollment and retention rates declined 2.1 percentage points.

Furthermore, the drastic drop in enrollment rates has disproportionately impacted students of color. Black student enrollment continues to decline since the onset of COVID-19 more than any other group, with enrollment declines also amongst Latino students. These low declines can partially be attributed to people of color disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. There are common scenarios of Black and Brown students forced to choose between attending class to get a good grade or working extra hours to pay their rent. It's important now more than ever, that community colleges adequately re-examine their approach to early-alert systems in order to prevent further exacerbating inequities and gaps in student success for Black and Brown students.

This pandemic has shown that it is important for community colleges to strategically analyze their processes and supports to adequately meet students’ needs. To do so, the following are recommendations for community colleges to improve their use of early alert systems as they grapple with online and hybrid learning modalities:

  1. Colleges must work with faculty to brainstorm creative ways to understand the context of signs that cause them to flag an alert in a virtual space (e.g. how to gauge if a student is engaged during an online lecture with compassion in understanding everyone’s remote learning environment may not be ideal).
  2. Colleges must carefully consider the kind of language used in messaging since there are limited in-person interactions in a virtual environment. Colleges and faculty must be cognizant of the types of messages that are most effective, ethical, and equitable to keep students engaged and retained.
  3. Community college leaders must improve strategies and processes for faculty and student support staffs’ use of alerts to ensure students are led to effective interventions in a virtual/hybrid college experience.
  4. Community college leaders must re-evaluate accessibility of student support services (e.g. offering weekend appointments for students to meet with academic advisors and faculty). Colleges should amplify and curate more virtual spaces that are designed to provide quality academic support.

Although early-alert systems can be effective tools to promote student success, the lack of balancing human interaction from faculty and staff, with students in a virtual environment, risks students slipping through the cracks and not accessing proper assistance. Although the reliance on technology to predict student outcomes has changed in light of the pandemic, it is imperative that each flagged student receives a personal touch from faculty/staff in hybrid and virtual learning environments to achieve institutional goals of student success.

Our ongoing work on early alert systems will evaluate the extent to which community colleges are using early alert systems and its impact on students, particularly Black and Brown students. We will use this work to better understand whether these systems effectively improve retention and completion outcomes, with consideration for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our work will provide actionable recommendations for community college leaders and practitioners.

Stay tuned for more work on this project!

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