Harnessing Involvement Data To Uncover Key Indicators & Improve Retention
“The amount of data that we have at our fingertips through Presence is truly phenomenal. The data that’s sitting there — there are endless possibilities for what we can do with it all. My mind has been spinning. I have so many ideas for how we can use the data to dig deeper and finally find out what exact factors and campus experiences lead to student success here.”
Like at many institutions across the country, student retention is everything for Arkansas Tech University. The number of first-year students who return for year two is not just a “fun fact” — the sort that’s known only by student tour guides or someone who’s read every word of ATU’s Wikipedia page. Retention is key to the institution’s top decision-makers, and thus, it’s also key to every department and the resources allocated to them each year.
That’s a mix of good news and bad news for student affairs. On one hand, ATU’s campus life staff has long been confident that their work empowers students to stay enrolled. Students who are more engaged outside of the classroom are more likely to also succeed inside the classroom and stay enrolled.
But, here’s the rub: Dean of Student Engagement Dr. Brett Bruner had no reliable way of proving this trend. They had plenty of engrossing anecdotes but very little in the way or data that reliably told the story of the engagement-retention connection across the entire student body. They had a student engagement portal before Presence but the data was limited and presented in a way that was highly cumbersome to understand, nevermind draw meaningful conclusions from.
“When I first started here, we weren’t getting robust data points, which we needed to truly be able to tell the story of our students.” — Dr. Brett Bruner
And without that, they were met with skepticism from institutional leadership and no way to motivate students to get involved beyond “c’mon, it’ll be fun!” Leadership wasn’t convinced enough to allocate precious financial resources to campus life, and students didn’t understand that co-curricular involvement would make them more successful at ATU.
These were among the issues bemoaned by Brett and the members of the retention committee he co-chairs. It’s not enough to say that there are “some connections” between involvement and retention. What precise experiences are most likely to help a student persist at ATU semester after semester, and why? How do different campus experiences influence one another? And what demographics of students are being left behind?
“During our meetings, we’d ask ‘how do we dig deeper than involvement? How do we dig deeper to learn about a student who has recorded at least one hour of community service? Is that involvement-retention rate different than a student who is in a fraternity or sorority life chapter or a student who has attended an event?’” — Dr. Brett Bruner
These were all valid questions — crucial to understanding the full story of everyday life on campus — but the committee lacked the data to answer them.
And Brett knew that ATU’s accreditors would be interested in the answers, too. Actually, they’d be more than interested; they’d require data. Flimsy stories don’t count as evidence in the eyes of accreditors, who can make or break a campus’s reputation. Accreditors would need irrefutable evidence that the institution is supporting students beyond the classroom — which, of course, is something that Student Affairs can provide best.
Brett understood that accreditation is a unique opportunity for campus life to shine, verified for its success by folks outside of ATU’s internal community. And he also knew that he couldn’t rely on university leadership above him to answer the accreditor’s co-curricular inquiries; he had the foresight to seek out a solution himself.
“I think the biggest thing that we were trying to be able to articulate was how does student involvement contribute to student retention? I guess that’s the case on many, many campuses; student retention is not a buzzword here. We need to increase it to prove our worth.” — Brett Bruner
In June 2019, they became Presence Partners and finally got their numbers. That’s the magic of Presence’s data collection and assessment tools — including real-time analytics, custom demographic attributes, and integrated SIS data. ATU continually discovers event attendance numbers right as the events are happening and can study behavioral trends by the student demographics of their choice. What’s more, the Campus Life team can compare all of this to retention data with the university’s Student Information System to understand (and boast about) specific engagement trends that support retention.
One stat that Brett is particularly pumped about relates to volunteerism. He found that students who recorded at least one hour of community or volunteer service through Presence have a 94% retention rate. Compared with the average retention rate of 72% among all first-year students, that’s truly outstanding!
“That 94% rate is phenomenal to know! That is something that now I’ve talked to my team about, like, we have to lead with that. Like that’s significant percentage points above all our other campus partners.” — Dr. Brett Bruner
He also found retention trends among students who participated in at least one campus recreation program, students who hold membership in academic-based student orgs, students who are engaged in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programming… and more. He even examined the retention rate differences between students who were executive board members of a student org versus students who were general members or occasional event attendees. In other words, by utilizing the wealth of Presence data available to him, Brett can break down engagement into levels and categories of impact, then use those facts (no longer mere stories) to incentivize involvement to students.
They got all this without having to pay for additional reporting features. Presence is one price, all included — with an abundance of data riches ready to be downloaded at the click of a button.
“Presence has made finding and assessing data so much easier than with our last platform. The reports that our campus life team can download at their fingertips — I can easily cross-reference that within our university system for retention reports. That was one of the reasons that Presence first stood out to me. As a retention and an assessment guy, the amount of data that we do have at our fingertips with Presence — rather than having to request an additional report for X, Y, or Z — made it clearly superior to other platforms we researched.” — Dr. Brett Bruner
Lightning speed access to data was especially key for ATU during its recent regional accreditation visit. Through their Presence-powered data dashboard, Brett and his teammates could answer unpredictable questions right then and there — rather than having to rely on follow-up communication days later or spending weeks prepping beforehand, like other engagement platforms would have required.
“I think it was so helpful on the day of the accreditation visit as we got questions. Cause you never know what questions you’re going to get from an accreditor. When they were doing their site visit, we had Presence up in the background and we ran reports as we needed to. So we could happily provide answers within the quick window of their visit.” — Dr. Brett Bruner
Brett’s team was also delighted to show off how they were able to support students virtually, which they were challenged to do during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the many ongoing virtual programs they’ve hosted, ATU also designed a 100% virtual pre-orientation program through Presence.
Finally, with Presence in their toolbox, Brett and his teammates have become extraordinary storytellers. Rather than sharing basic data with students, campus partners, and institutional leadership through boring bullet points or complex who-has-time-to-study-it spreadsheets, Presence has empowered Brett to design a dynamic data dashboard to tell stories visually through the platform. Bubble graphs, bar and pie charts, and other easily digestible elements create a picture of student involvement that’s far more captivating to anyone wishing to find stories within the numbers.
“I can share this data at my fingertips with the Vice President for student affairs whom I report to. Then she can share these numbers with other key colleagues or the university president. And I think that’s something we already pride ourselves on, that we use data to make informed decisions. We’re all about evidence-based practices. And since Presence now provides us with those robust data points, my mind immediately spins in terms of its implication. Like, how can I dig deeper?” — Dr. Brett Bruner
The first few years with Presence have established a data baseline for ATU. Next, the Campus Life team has its data visions set on comparing future engagement and retention stats from each semester to the next.
“We’ll look at are we trending up or are we turning down? And how do we use that data? You know, if we’re trending down in an area, then how do we design support systems or programs for those types of students or organizations, or how do we really dig deeper to see why we’re starting to trend down? That’s my vision for our future, and I know that, with Presence, we’ll make it happen.” — Dr. Brett Bruner
Whenever they discover that more and more students are engaging with a certain area of student life — such as Greek organizations, First-Year Experiences, or outdoor recreation — they’ll be able to explore why those programs are so successful and spread that bit of magic elsewhere.
Brett is especially excited to share data with students in connection to retention. Soon, he’ll be able to reach his dream of highlighting connections between specific behaviors and student success. His beloved stat about volunteer hours correlating with a 94% retention rate can be joined by retention rates that correlate with visits to the student union, membership in Greek life, participation in homecoming, and so much more. No wonder Brett says his mind has been spinning! With Presence, data can lead to countless discoveries and informed decisions.
He and his team plan to also use these stats to incentivize further engagement. Once they discover factors that correlate most strongly with retention, they can create gamified initiatives through Presence to guide more students in those directions. For example, new students who log at least one community service hour within their first six weeks can be awarded points that they can later exchange for real-world prizes. It’ll be a clever way to increase learning and engagement, while setting students up for a better shot at retention.
The ATU Campus Life Team also plans to investigate what sort of students their programs are leaving behind.
“Who are those students recording community service hours? What are the other pieces that we can extrapolate? Are they students who hold membership in 17 organizations and are going to every event? I think once we can figure out all of the other data points — that I know for sure Presence has for us to find — then we can figure out who we aren’t reaching and how we can use that data to make other informed decisions.” — Dr. Brett Bruner
For example, are first-generation students joining student organizations as often as their peers? Are commuter students attending evening programs on campus? Is it primarily just fourth-year students who’ve been participating in a new career center initiative?
Diving into the awaiting answers will help Brett and his team truly define what makes for an “involved” or “successful” student. Then, they’ll be able to develop plans to better engage students with identities that have often been overlooked.
They’d also love to use some data discoveries to spark unique campus partnerships. For example, the Health & Wellness Center could partner with the First-Year Experiences Office to develop plans to inspire more first-year students to utilize counseling services. Or Fraternity and Sorority Life could team up with The Office of Civic Engagement to get more Greek-affiliated students politically engaged.
“There are two things that I’m most excited about: Digging deeper into existing data and truly setting up a dashboard with all of the data points that we could go back to over and over to see changes over time, as they happen. As a data nerd, this isn’t minor to me nor is it minor to our campus or my department.” — Dr. Brett Bruner
Less than two years ago, ATU had to search desperately for scraps of data. Now, by utilizing Presence in innovative ways, they’re enjoying a treasure trove of data — to the delight of students, campus partners, institutional leadership, and accreditors alike. And with some more deep diving, they’re confident that the data-based storytelling will only get more descriptive, informative, and compelling from here on out.
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