Early Alert Systems - The Authoritative Guide for Student Success
Introduction To Early Alert Systems
Early Alert Systems allow administrators to proactively support their students by getting real-time notifications on their course performance. This makes it possible to assist an underperforming student while there is still time to improve their final grade. Such programs increase graduation rates, GPAs, and reduce the rates of students completing a course with grades of D, Fail, or Withdrawal.
Tools like this are much needed. According to 2019 results from the National Center For Education Statistics, 37% of students in the USA were unable to complete a four year degree within six years. Even worse, a 2021 Forbes article showed that over 40% of students at four year colleges were unable to earn a Bachelor’s degree within six years. Many of these students are low income, and achieved under a B average high school GPA.
We may think that, as higher education institutions, we should focus on the best and brightest students. However, that is decidedly not the best course of action. According to NYU professor Scott Galloway, universities were not founded to make extraordinary students more extraordinary. Instead, they were built to make the ordinary students extraordinary. By lifting those up that are underperforming, rather than allowing them to fall to the wayside, we can greatly improve the quality of education for the student, and simultaneously, the benefits for the institution.
These academic early alert systems are excellent tools to retain, lift up, and organize students. They can improve dropout rates, increase GPA, and create higher quality alumni. Some of these information technology systems can even integrate with schools’ existing LMS, SIS, and SSO programs.
On this page you will learn about the importance of adopting an early alert system, who these programs are built for, how they work, and how they can create positive measurable outcomes.
Why Are Early Alerts Important?
These programs increase graduation rates, GPAs, and reduce DFW rates. This improves student retention and allows schools to produce a higher caliber of graduate.
Student retention is important to all universities as it maintains revenue through admission cycles. When students drop out part way through a degree, that obviously can have large financial impacts on the student, but on the university as well. If a student drops out after the first year of a four year degree, that represents a loss of three years of tuition payments. Taking into account the costs for onboarding and orienting a student in first year, this is a drain on campus resources.
Graduation rates are essential to the reputation of any university. A large influence on graduation rate comes down to student confidence. When a student has confidence they will be supported, they are more likely to finish their degree. With improved academic performance, the standing of the school is likely to increase, their graduates will find better careers, and the school will attract more future students.
These systems allow you to be proactive, not just reactive. This can reduce workload on administrators and mitigate the possibility of a student finding themselves in a place of academic crisis. Administrators and faculty have many tasks to attend to. When their responsibilities are streamlined, they can direct their focus to other work.
An early alert system can even generate reporting data on student success. This is a huge asset, as it allows you to accurately track where to allocate resources.
Who Should These Platforms Be Built For?
Although administrators and department heads are responsible for implementing an early alert system, we must not forget who these programs are for. As decision makers, it is integral to maintain a student-centric perspective. It is easy to be narrowly focussed on the way in which the operation of a new program will introduce efficiencies to administrative staff. While that is an important factor, this thinking can often lead to the adoption of a platform that is ineffective, complicated, unhelpful, or at worst, a hindrance for students.
Many institutions build their early alert systems solely for their first year students. There is sound logic here. First year students have a steep learning curve- they must learn how to select courses, what courses to take, how to get help, and how to become and stay apprised of the happenings on campus that affect them.
However, though it is important to bolster your first year students- second, third, fourth, and graduate students also benefit from these systems. As a higher education institution, the longevity and achievement of students is of paramount importance. Therefore, when considering implementing an early alert system, it is wise to consider the student lifecycle in its entirety and how it can be best supported.
How Do These Systems Work?
Although these are technical systems, we must not forget that at its most basic, the purpose is to foster connection and engagement. While systems can get you the information you need, there is no replacement for effective communication and interpersonal skills.
These systems are far more effective when strategic frameworks are implemented alongside their adoption. It is possible to introduce a new system and see few positive results. These programs must be implemented in tandem with data benchmarks.
When adopting a new system, it is worth asking what your Early Alert Process will look like. This includes asking who is responsible for maintaining the system, who (or which departments) will manage the administration and workflows, and who will be tasked with contacting the actual students.
For example, let’s suppose it’s halfway through a semester and a student is struggling in English 300. They have written some essays and received low grades. If the university has an early alert system, an automatic notification goes to a preselected recipient. In this case, it goes directly to an academic advisor. Once notified, the advisor can contact the student and schedule a virtual or in person meeting- all through the same system. In their meeting, they learn that the student is having difficulty structuring their papers correctly. The advisor can immediately book the student for a meeting with the writing department. From this streamlined process, the student regains confidence, and is quickly given the help they need to succeed in English 300. Because of the early intervention, the university was able to improve the academic standing of the student before it was too late.
These systems can be excellent organizational tools. When workflows are streamlined departments operate more efficiently. In the above example, it was possible to offer proactive and valuable resources to a student. Some programs make this process highly intuitive, and allow student services to operate more effectively.
According to Farnum, when adopting early alerts we need to be asking foundational questions. Before integrating a new system, we have to know what problem(s) that system is addressing. Are some student demographics performing poorly when compared with others? Are there certain classes which see a higher percentage of students struggling? From here, we can determine which departments or programs are best suited to address these concerns. From this foundation, we can begin to build systems that connect these obstacles with positive outcomes.
There are key questions to ask when introducing an early alert system:
- What methodology will be employed to standardize and optimize meaningful student outcomes?
- Who will be the responder to the early alert?
- How can important file information be shared between departments?
- Who will train administrators, tutors, and faculty to use the service?
- How can onboarding be as simple as possible?
- How will questions from users and staff be meaningfully and efficiently answered?
As mentioned above, it is important to consider the departments that you wish to use your early alert system for. Will it be for financial aid, writing help, academic success, or even recruitment and alumni departments? These are important questions, because not all systems are capable of meeting the needs of every department. You need to find a robust system that can effectively work with every department.
Some systems require large manual input from faculty, which can lead to troubles with accurate and timely reporting. If responsible for inputting the performance of their students into a system, faculty can be resistant or neglectful. This adds burden to faculty rather than lightening it, and can yield no improvement of retention.
Some schools have experimented with different strategies, including policies of remediation, financial assistance, and attempts to fit students to programs that best fit their interests and skillsets. Unfortunately, these programs bear little positive impact because it’s difficult to determine the impact of one program when it operates in conjunction with another.
For smaller schools, or those unprepared to handle large amounts of information, can have a difficult time with the sheer amount of data these programs are capable of collecting. If robust infrastructure and strategic direction is not implemented at the outset, the data can be overwhelming and unhelpful.
Finally, while early alert systems are tools that can drastically improve student retention, they do not exist in isolation. These systems are necessary but not sufficient to solve all retention problems that schools face. These systems have to be built upon a strong foundation of student support programs with adequate advising and tutoring. These support programs can certainly be refined and improved with an early alert system, and that may be where the magic lies. These systems are not designed to reinvent your existing systems. Rather, they massively increase the efficiency of existing student support programs.
Being able to quantifiably measure the success rates of your students is of the utmost importance. Some sophisticated early alert systems show you real-time data on student performance, even down to the course level. This allows institutions to apply more nuanced, tailored, proactive support to students. These systems allow you to see important information such as activity data, usage trends, and reports.
It is easy to think that the main causes of dropouts are academic difficulty and tuition cost. However, there are myriad reasons for students to leave school. Work, health, subject relevance, connection, and stress are large reasons that cause students to walk away. When data points are collected by proactively reaching out to students, you can see trends in where they are struggling most- and do something about it before it’s too late. Oftentimes, even the student doesn’t know their trajectory in a course- making these systems all the more important.
Early alert systems for academic student success are excellent tools that benefit students, faculty, administrators, support services, advisors, and institutions. When used properly and effectively, they can create a huge impact on student retention.
There are many key questions that administrators must ask when deciding what system to implement. The decision must be based on the specific needs of the institution, and the best interests of the students.
Some of these systems have been designed to have excellent user interfaces, and are easier to use for students and faculty alike. An early alert system that is intuitive and simple to use will be more effective than one that is overly-complicated.
When choosing an early alert system, there are many factors to consider. Hopefully upon reading this article you are able to move forward by asking the right questions and finding a system that best fits your institution.