Vetting Early Alert Technologies

Image of a student holding a cell phone

As more colleges and universities look to improve the success of those students who are most academically “at risk,” a host of software technologies to assist in early alert have proliferated on the market. Investment in such a third-party technology can be significant; yet many institutions purchase these tools quickly without the up-front decisions needed to ensure that the benefits will outweigh the cost.

We turned this week to Jennifer Jones, adjunct instructor at Minnesota State University, Mankato and a visiting assistant professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, to learn more. While serving as the director of academic retention at the University of Alabama, Jones developed a comprehensive and strategic approach to identifying at-risk students.

Jones offers three critical pieces of advice:

  • Make certain you have defined, specific goals and that the technology you are considering is a good fit for those specific goals
  • Plan for how you will use and maintain the system -– before you buy it
  • Make sure that you select a vendor who will offer the level of support you need

In speaking with us, Jones offered checklists of the questions you need to be asking up front, prior to procuring new software. Here are some of the most important points.

Is it the Right Fit for Your Goals?

The tool itself won’t resolve the challenges you face, but it can help you target your solutions –- if you define specific goals for what improvements you want to see and what role the technology will play in your early alert or retention program, and then identify the right software to help you meet those specific goals. What does “retention” or “student success” mean at your institution?

For example, are you trying to:

  • See more students persist from freshman year to the first term of sophomore year?
  • See fewer students on academic probation?
  • See more students enrolled in accelerated courses?
  • See more students with a higher GPA?

“What if you bring more students back for the first term of their sophomore year,” Jones asks, “but a higher number of them are on academic probation? Maybe they returned for the first term of their second year, but are they likely to make it to the second term? You need to define what student success looks like –- does it take into account GPA, hours earned, academic standing?”

Clarifying which objectives are most important to you will help you define what you need your technology to do -– so that you can get the right technology for the job.

Checklist: Questions to Ask Internally

“Integrating an online early alert program is challenging. A lot of work needs to be done on the institution’s end to ensure that the right offices and people buy into the program and have considered how they can use it effectively to help students. The biggest mistake institutions make is to just buy the program without doing an assessment of their current landscape and goals related to retention and early alert.”
Jennifer Jones, Minnesota State University, Mankato

Jones offers this checklist of questions that need to be addressed internally before even considering a technology purchase:

  • Who is the “keeper” of the program? Who will manage it, decide what content goes into it, and assess whether the results are effective?
  • Which unit will pay for the program –- and how will this affect any sense of ownership or shared ownership of the program? Will this be a first-year student experience program, and their charge? Will it be paid for by academic affairs? How will you ensure that other units feel invested in it? (The larger, underlying question is –- do multiple units buy into the idea that the whole campus is responsible for student success, or do other units feel that this is the job of one or two offices?)
  • Who will have access to the program? For example, if yours is a residential campus, will your housing staff (who have ready access to your on-campus students) be involved?
  • Once you are using the program and are alerted to students who may be struggling, what will you do with that information? What process will you put in place? Will there be a standard way to reach out to those students -– and will those doing the outreach be trained to assist students? What if a student is struggling because they are being abused by a significant other, or are suffering from an eating disorder, or because they have just lost a job? “If you need to talk to students who are in crisis,” Jones advises, “you need staff reaching out who have training in counseling.”
  • How will you know that the program is working?

Citing the case of one institution that spent $50,000 on a program and then asked, after the purchase, who would manage the program, Jones advises, “You can’t just buy the tool and expect it to automatically work -– just as you can’t buy an exercise bike, have it sit in your living room, and expect it to work for you.”

“A vendor won’t help you think through these questions. You need to do this thinking up front.”
Jennifer Jones, Minnesota State University, Mankato

Checklist: Questions to Ask the Vendor

Making the most of an early alert tool requires a lot of work, and it’s crucial to ensure that any vendor you sign on with is able to offer the support your institution needs. Jones suggests looking for these items:

  • Consistent contact with one or two point people within the company (“you need to develop a relationship,” Jones remarks; “you shouldn’t have to introduce yourself each time”)
  • Are there regular check-in points – will the vendor be providing regular support through the year?
  • How timely will their response be to technical issues?
  • What level of customization will they offer? Make sure that you are able to add data points that allow you to note factors that impact retention for your student population (e.g., living on vs. off campus, athlete vs. non-athlete, Greek vs. not Greek, etc.), add and delete alerts (can you deliver targeted messages to specific segments of your student population that you define … for example, can you send an alert just to your out-of-state students?), and align messages sent with the look and feel of your institution’s other online communications; “it’s important the program looks like it is part of your institution’s overall visual identity,” Jones cautions.
  • Can the back end integrate with your student information system (SIS)? And if there is some work required to integrate it, how willing is the vendor to make accommodations? “Ideally,” Jones adds, “you should be able to feed information from your SIS to the early alert program to ensure that the information is up to date and real-time.”
  • Will the company give you access to other customers to talk to, to compare notes on how to use the product most effectively?

Jones recommends approaching these questions with the mindset that you are negotiating a contract (rather than simply buying a product off the shelf).  “Question the sales pitch, and negotiate the contract,” she advises. “It’s common to hear figures quoted; if the vendors suggests you’ll see X percent boost in your retention rate over the course of a year using this software, question that. What if the program doesn’t work? What if you don’t see results? Do you get your money back? Who’s responsible for it? You need to move past the sales pitch into real conversations around customization, use of the system, and your responsibilities to each other.”

“Get the right people at the table for that negotiation –- not just your student affairs professionals but also IT and a business officer. You need the right people involved in vetting the vendor, to make sure all the right questions get asked before making the purchase.”
Jennifer Jones, Minnesota State University, Mankato