Messaging Matters When Using Early-Alert Systems

Blog Post
May 24, 2022

Over the past nine months, we’ve met with community college leaders to learn about their use of early-alert systems and its impact on Black and Brown students’ academic progress. Early-alert systems are communication advocacy tools typically used for improving student retention and completion. A recurring theme from our conversations with administrators is the importance of effective messaging when using early-alert systems to reach students.

The choice of words used to alert students about their academic performance is critical to whether colleges can effectively connect with their students and encourage them to use appropriate student support resources. Given that most communication from colleges to students has shifted to online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges must be intentional with their messaging strategies to support student success with early-alert systems, especially from a racial equity lens to support Black and Brown students.

Early-alert systems support college objectives with two components: alerts and interventions. Alerts are designed as a proactive feedback loop that flags students for various academic reasons (e.g. attendance, late or failed assignment, failing letter grade, etc). Interventions are the next steps to alerts and they include strategic outreaches to address the problem and the student’s potential need (e.g. tutoring, meet with academic advisor, access to mental health services, etc). These two components help colleges gather demographic and performance data to predict student behavior and intervene when necessary. However, in order to intervene effectively, these systems require thoughtfully crafted messaging approaches. If the wordings of alerts and interventions are not effective, this can cause unintentional harm and discourage students from getting the support they need.

Creating messages for alerts and interventions may seem like an easy task, but having good intentions when sending alerts does not guarantee success. With community colleges enrolling primarily underserved students (e.g. Black, Latino, low-income and working adults with families), their needs and challenges are different from traditional white-counterpart and college-aged students. Therefore, ineffective messaging can exacerbate adverse circumstances that they may be experiencing in their personal lives and/or academics.

Ineffective early-alert messages carry equity implications on Black and Brown students. For example, one administrator we interviewed shared how their college did not think much of the word “probation” when used in the context of financial aid and alerting students. However, this college primarily serves students of color, and so the students interpreted the term “probation” in a negative context that adversely affected the engagement the college was intending to garner. Scenarios such as this can grow prevalent if colleges do not consider how messages can be interpreted through a multi-perspective and equity-based lens. For Black and Brown students particularly, ineffective messaging can affect their experiences with their institution, such as their sense of belonging, academic performance, and relationships with the faculty and staff.

However, positive early-alert messages can do the opposite and benefit the overall relationship that students have with their institution, and vice-versa. In a New America report “How You Say it Matters,” former colleague Alejandra Acosta shares how messaging approaches matter for student success. Within early-alert systems, a positive message can help colleges follow through with their objectives and goals of alerting students. For example, another administrator we interviewed shared how their college changed the wording of their alert from “endanger of failing” to “substantial change needed to pass the course” because the language in the previous alert was not received well by students. Changes like this may be necessary in order for an alert to truly carry out its intended purpose. Another college we interviewed decided to hire a consultant that would assist them in their messaging approaches so that they would receive better outcomes from the students they were trying to reach. Strategies such as these that improve messaging approaches are worth the investment because they keep more students engaged and help colleges meet their retention goals.

It is important that community colleges strategically create messaging approaches when using these systems in order to support student success and adequately meet students’ needs. To do so, here are three recommendations grounded in our preliminary findings for community college leaders to consider to improve their messaging approaches when using early-alert systems:

  1. Colleges must understand their student body and cultivate safe spaces for students to give feedback about messaging and general communications the college uses to reach students. This can include test-runs through student focus groups during implementation processes so that colleges know what messages work and do not work within the early-alert system.
  2. Colleges should create a guide of thoughtfully crafted messages to help faculty/ staff who use early-alerts, and hold training sessions for them to address implicit biases when communicating with students through early-alerts. This will help improve faculty/staff communication practices to ensure that leaders are being mindful of students' different perspectives when interpreting messaging.
  3. Colleges should ensure they go through a comprehensive vendor vetting process. Majority of these messaging approaches can be addressed if colleges choose and adopt the right vendor that supports institutional objectives with early-alert systems, and offers training sessions with staff and faculty for best approaches.

My colleague Dr.Monique Ositelu and I are continuing our work on early-alert systems to evaluate the extent to which community colleges are using these 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 and messaging approaches. Our work will provide actionable recommendations for community college leaders and practitioners.

Stay tuned for more!

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