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At many community colleges, student advising no longer ends when the student services office closes. Online advising tools are giving students the freedom to track their progress and plan for the future 24 hours a day.
As the student demographic continues to shift and colleges focus more on increasing completion rates, the use of online advising services is growing at community colleges. One such program, CollegeFish.org—a free tool run by Phi Theta Kappa, the international honor society of the community college—will roll out expanded services this fall.
“The dynamic nature of community college enrollment, encompassing students from all demographics, makes it very challenging to meet the needs of the student by only providing traditional, face-to-face, nine-to-five, Monday-through-Friday support services,” said Jennifer Blalock, coordinator of the CollegeFish.org Community College Program.
Keeping students on track
AgileGrad, developed by a faculty member at Oregon’s Mt. Hood Community College (MHCC), launched in 2010 and is rapidly growing its client base.
Online advising is not meant to replace the face-to-face advising conversation but to supplement it, according to Andy Dryden, an engineering faculty member at Mt. Hood Community College in Oregon who developed AgileGrad, which launched in 2010. Online advising offers students a way to build a roadmap to their degree, planning what classes to take and in which sequence.
“Students need to have plans, and they need to have realistic and achievable plans,” said Dryden, who is on leave from MHCC to serve as director of student success strategy at Hobsons, the company that acquired AgileGrad.
Jobs, families and finances often got in the way of those plans for many of Dryden’s students. When they needed to drop a course—particularly a prerequisite—they often weren’t able to see how detrimental that could be to their long-term success. Online advising tools, like AgileGrad, let students track their progress and see what effect dropping a class might have.
Students “eat it up,” Dryden said. If they do need to make changes, they can update their plans online with three or four clicks.
Putting students in control of their own progress can positively impact completion rates.
“Students who have campus connections and engage with the use of support resources are statistically more successful in persistence and completion,” said Blalock of Phi Theta Kappa.
Making transfer connections
CollegeFish.org is aimed at not only helping students complete, but also transfer seamlessly to four-year institutions. The college transfer process can be “overwhelming” and cause students to “lose sight of their overall goal of completion,” Blalock said.
The transfer support services offered through CollegeFish.org connect students with support staff at the community college and at the four-year institution. The service provides “those critical first connections so students are well-prepared for the steps involved in transferring,” according to Blalock.
Besides tracking academic progression, students can use the online tool to search for colleges that match their preferences, find scholarships and connect with peers who have already transferred. Resources also are being added to help four-year institutions recruit community college students.
Currently, CollegeFish.org is only available to Phi Theta Kappa members and students at partner colleges in Mississippi. A $3-million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will help expand the program to five states—Alabama, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky and Washington. All students at the 125 community colleges in those states will have free access to the resource beginning this fall. A national invitation will be issued in 2013.
Helping colleges plan better
Though these systems are student driven, they’re also affecting institutions. When students have more control over their schedules, advisors can spend less time talking about courses and more time talking about students’ academic and career goals.
Beyond that, the online tools can help institutions with forecasting. When administrators can gauge how many students are in the pipeline to take specific classes, they can adjust the number of sections and determine the needed classroom space before the first day of class.
“We’re able to see what demand is showing even before registration opens,” Dryden said.
The tool can also be used to mine data. Through the degree audit functions, colleges can contact people who left the institution a few credits shy of graduation to encourage them to complete their degrees.
There was a learning curve when MHCC first implemented AgileGrad, Dryden noted. Some older faculty and staff were intimidated by the technology, but many welcomed it to advise students. Recently, the college’s board of directors has even begun requesting student progress data from the system.
“We set out to solve the student problem, and by solving that we can solve the institution problem,” Dryden said.
Copyright ©2012 American Association of Community Colleges