IVR Identifies At-Risk Students

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On the typical college or university campus, as many as one in three first-year students will not stay through to their sophomore year due to family problems, loneliness, academic struggles, or financial hardship.

At Avila University, a small Catholic school in Kansas City, Mo., the student retention rate is about 75 percent—well above the national average. But administrators still wanted to help identify first-year students at risk of dropping out or transferring to other schools and address their concerns.

So this past fall, the university deployed Scaller, an interactive voice response (IVR) solution from Vocantas, to aid its student retention efforts. Avila provided Vocantas with contact information for each of the 138 first-year students who started at the school in late August and 15 students from other years who were on academic probation. Beginning on September 26 (four weeks into the fall semester) and for six days afterward, the IVR made dozens of calls each day. The fully automated system polled the students about their needs in seven areas: time management, financial assistance, career counseling, academic advisement, note-taking, personal counseling, and tutorial help.

Calls were targeted toward new freshmen because, "with most colleges—and Avila is no different—we have our greatest attrition during freshman year. If students are going to leave, most do it then," says Paige Illum, coordinator of retention and the first-year experience at Avila University.

The school, run by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, has a student population of 1,800 (1,200 undergraduates in 60 academic majors and 600 graduate students in five advanced degree programs).

The IVR reached 53 percent of the students on the list, and, of those, 38 percent identified an area in which they could use some help. Several students identified needs in more than one area.

The IVR dialed one student after another until it had reached 10 students who identified an area of need from among the seven possible choices. At that point, the IVR discontinued calls for that day to give the appropriate Avila staff the chance to follow up with a personal phone call to each student who asked for help.

The results were not all that surprising. "Most of them were just good old-fashioned questions and concerns about the college experience," Illum explains. "They were the typical first-year concerns about adjusting to college life."

Illum also found that the follow-up phone call from a live person at the university made a big difference. "What we found when we followed up with students after the IVR calls was that multiple issues identified in each survey call could often be resolved with just one personal phone call to the student," she says.

The IVR survey took only a few minutes for the students to complete. Vocantas drafted the script based on input from its education partners and past experience with similar systems it had deployed at other schools. One of Vocantas's first customers was Algonquin College of Applied Arts and Technology in Ottawa, Canada, which first used the Scaller system in September 2008 to reach out to thousands of students on two campuses.

Scaller relies on an automated system that asks the students a series of questions to identify challenges they are facing. Automation is the preferred method, because, as Vocantas has found, students are more likely to be honest and open with a machine than they are with a live person.

To ensure adequate student participation, Avila told the students at their new student orientation and during the first session of their freshman seminar (a class to teach them how to become more independent) that they would be getting the IVR phone calls in a few weeks. To those students who were not reached through the IVR, the school sent email messages asking them to get in touch with someone at the school if they had any problems or concerns.

"Our students were very receptive to the outreach, and the results provided us with early indicator intelligence as to which students were most at risk within our fall semester intake group," said Darby Gough, Avila's dean of students, in a statement.

And, if nothing else, the initiative allowed Avila to confirm student contact information and update their records, helping to ensure that the university is able to effectively contact students in the event of an emergency.

Gary Hannah, president and CEO of Vocantas, calls Avila's results "in line with the successful results we have seen in other deployments of our IVR in higher education."

"When given the opportunity, typically students will self-identify that they need help; in fact thirty-five percent to forty percent of students ask for help when given the chance," he said in a statement. "The good news is we typically see retention rates improve after the students receive a single outreach call from the IVR. With the diligent follow-up that Avila has put in…we expect a significant improvement in Avila's year-over-year retention results."

It's still too early to tell just what impact the IVR calls and personal follow-up will have at Avila, but Illum is optimistic. "We've planned our retention program with a variety of things, and this is just one tool to help us reach out to students to help them be successful," she says.

If the budget allows, Illum plans to use the system next year for the 2012–13 freshman class. "We had a great experience working with Vocantas," she says. "Everything worked totally seamlessly."

In the meantime, Illum will follow up with the at-risk students throughout the year to track their progress. School faculty and staff can also submit the names of students who they think might be having problems, and educators gauge the students throughout the year based on their performance on midterm and final exams.

"We do all sorts of outreach to students throughout the year," Illum says. "[Scaller] is just one way we reach them."

App At a Glance

In just its first usage of the Scaller student surveying IVR from Vocantas, Avila:

  • reached 53 percent of the freshman class within a few days;
  • identified more than 30 students who could be considered at risk for dropping out or transferring to other schools; and
  • followed up with each of the at-risk students to address their concerns.

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