Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success

Lorain County Community College has dramatically moved the needle on student success in recent years with a plan rooted in data on its students and assisted by a network of other campuses. Since 2011, the three-year graduation rate at the Ohio institution has increased from 8 percent to 23 percent.

Last year, we wrote a case study about how Lorain was able to improve retention and graduation rates through a student-centered approach, some adapted from best practices at other institutions.

Recently, higher education author and expert, Jeff Selingo, caught up with Lorain’s president, Marcia Ballinger, as well as the college’s provost, Jonathan Dryden, and Marisa Vernon White, Lorain’s vice president of enrollment management and student services, to see how the college has managed its student success efforts in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Q: What were you most worried about in your shift to remote education this spring?

White: We extended spring break in March to get ready for the move to online learning. We were worried that as soon as students came back from break, they’d be entering a totally new situation and would simply withdraw.

We developed a student survey to get a sense of what would be preventing them from moving forward. The foundation of the survey was from one we normally use when retention is falling behind. A few days before classes started, we asked students what they needed, what they were worried about, and if they were still planning to register for summer and fall classes to understand how they were thinking about the future.

We received 900 responses, 10 percent of our student population. Two hundred students completed open-ended questions about their needs and concerns.

We were pulling data from the survey in real time, three times a day. Then we deployed our advisors immediately to respond to the students. Advisors know their students because they are assigned within days of a student being accepted to the college. With this intervention, we added another layer to that with faculty. We gave a form to faculty about which students were impacted by the move to online learning.

Asking students what was happening in their lives—rather than waiting for them to come to us—was instrumental in our response to their needs.

Q: What were some of the common themes in the survey responses?

Dryden: They were overwhelmed. Many were working from home. Now, they were taking classes from home, while home-schooling their own children. Housing and food insecurity were high on the survey.

The survey helped us discover some of the most anxious students quickly. One group of students was in nursing. Being in applied and clinical programs is required to graduate. They were worried and we quickly discovered that when we realized many of the answers to the open-ended questions were from nursing students.

The student voice really shaped the faculty response in terms of pivoting online. Our health and wellness dean had an open Zoom town hall with those students. We didn’t have all the answers, but listening to the students pushed the nursing program to think differently. They moved courses around, for instance, to help students manage.

Overall, the percentage of students dropping out is smaller than a year ago. We’re down only 50 some students. Rather than leave altogether, what we’re finding is that students are dropping one or two classes.

Q: So, are the student success efforts you already had in place before this crisis helping you weather this storm?

White: Overall, the infrastructure has served us well right now. Our overarching goal is to keep students moving at the pace they were moving pre-Covid. That’s more difficult when students are dropping classes and it’s our biggest stressor.

Ballinger: Our SAIL (Students Accelerating in Learning) model is a microcosm of what’s happening. That model is built on students being full-time. It’s why the graduation rates of those students are so high.

Half of the SAIL students were already taking an online class. But we found that moving them to four or five online classes, at the same time, was a steep learning curve. They started to drop classes.

We have to be flexible by utilizing the summer, shifting how we advise them. The goal is to keep the momentum toward graduation.

Q: How do you help students maintain that momentum in the midst of a global pandemic and an economic downturn?

Ballinger: In some ways keeping the completion numbers on track this spring was the easy part. The students only had a few more weeks left in the semester. The question for us is what the barriers are going to be for students going forward.

Students are taking stock of their lives right now and figuring out what they can do to make it easier—and, for many of them, dropping a class or two seems like a good idea. They’re spending more time in front of a computer. There’s more burnout with school as a result. We need to figure out strategies to solve for those issues.

We’re looking at how we can do things to drive completion that we were already considering, such as short courses. Given unemployment, upskilling adult learners will be critical. What are the high-demand careers going to be? How do we deliver what we do in accelerated and flexible formats? How do we do that online?

We have learned from Covid-19 that delivering wrap-around services online that are focused on adult learners—and all that they’re dealing with at home and in their lives—will be important.

Q: What’s not working from your strategy to drive student success over the last few years? What are you concerned about for the future?

Ballinger: We’re a very data-heavy institution. We’ve worked hard to build data systems so that we were all working from a common set of assumptions.

The future may look very different for us, and all of higher education. The modeling that we’ve done [before] might not be as helpful to us.

Our local industries are also changing. Their product lines are changing, and it’s going to create more chaos in the shorter term. It will be difficult to gauge and project workforce needs. We’ve had huge demands on our first responders and our regional health-care systems, and there will be burnout coming out of this. There will be a need for newer talent.

Higher education is going to change; we want to be ready.