Tech Toolkit: Helping Low-Income and First-Gen Students Reach Graduation

We’re facing a challenge of national proportions: only 20 percent of low-income college students graduate with a bachelor’s degree within six years. But through the Dell Scholars model, our full-time staff of four offers individualized support to more than 1,900 Scholars in over 400 colleges and universities – achieving a six-year graduation rate of 80 percent. Providing intensive coaching and reaching a large number of students can seem like opposite goals, but as a slim team of advisors, we are employing technology to help us work more effectively and create meaningful impact at scale.

Rather than hiding behind a computer screen, our advisors are leveraging data to best prioritize real-life, relationship-based touchpoints, intervening where we’re needed most to make a significant impact on student outcomes. Curious how it works? Here’s a peek into our technology toolkit –

Admin Tool
Purpose: Keep everything – from financial aid packages to text messages – in one place. Centralizing our data collection is a core principle that makes it possible to provide individualized support at scale. From financial aid packages to academic progress, to every communication with our students, whether by call, email or text, all data is centralized in our Dell Scholar admin tool (adapted as student management platform GradSnapp), where it can be accessed by every member of our staff.

This allows our team the flexibility for immediate action and interventions, so any advisor can jump in when a student needs support. We’re also offered a clear picture of how different factors in a student’s life may be impacting one another, to identify meaningful trends or barriers to student success. Finally, our data centralization allows us to reduce administrative tasks, freeing up our time for more valuable student interactions.

Student Risk Indicators
Purpose: Translate data into action. We gather a wealth of information on each student, but data is useless if it’s not being put to work. With a slim team, we have to be smart about leveraging technology to derive insights, to help us pinpoint issues and prioritize where we can have the greatest impact.

Based on our experience supporting low-income and first-generation students to graduation, we know where they struggle. We were able to translate those anecdotes into student risk indicators to help us quickly prioritize. Rather than reviewing hundreds of case files, our advisors are ready to focus their efforts on students with the greatest need – and reach them before it’s too late to help. Our advisors, most of which are first-generation college graduates themselves, bring a depth of knowledge to the table gained from years of experience and ongoing training, to put insights from our technology solutions into action.

Student Dashboards
Purpose: Incentivize and empower students. No one has more to gain from a college diploma than our students themselves. How we can incentivize them to share the information we need to support them, while equipping them with additional tools along the path to graduation? We recognize our scholarship dollars are a huge incentive to report data to us, but also seek to build a broader platform for discussing their progress and potential issues.

When Dell Scholars fill out their financial aid worksheet, they can access a dashboard which analyzes their status: gaps in funding, loan debt versus national averages, comparison tools to assess loan offers, and resources to make sense of it all. On the academic side, students will find a snapshot of their path to graduation, tracking credits toward their declared major and progress over time. The insights derived from our tools serve a dual purpose: empowering both advisors and students to be informed, and to see when a helping hand can make a difference.

Text Messaging
Purpose: Meet students where they are. Dell Scholars complete onboarding and annual surveys to provide critical data that informs our advising, so we’re constantly seeking ways to make this process more convenient for them and increase response rates in return. Where phone and email follow-up might fail, advisors would find themselves texting students to chase down specific information – successfully, an “aha!” moment for our team. Texting was built into our admin tool allowing us to send and receive messages directly in a centralized location.

This year, we’ve expanded on this capability to increase the response rate of our student surveys. Heading into mid-term exams, we sent a quick prompt:

“Mid-term exams are approaching! Have you been passing all your exams? Enter Y or N.”

With one keystroke, students are finishing a survey that gives valuable data to our staff, knowing who to reach out to for support during mid-term exams. The text survey garnered an impressive 50 percent response rate from first-year students.

In another example, several students hadn’t yet completed the survey required during Dell Scholars onboarding. With the deadline quickly approaching, a text inquiry was distributed to inquire about the reason for the delay: they haven’t chosen which college they’re attending, they are under financial aid verification, or another reason? Several students responded back by text, while others responded to our nudge and quickly completed the survey. While we’re still working on the balance between this type of automation and human intervention, our goal remains the same: to meet students where they are.

Members of our technology team are embedded in Dell Scholars, joining program meetings and serving as partners towards our mission. With this nuanced understanding of the program, they are able to offer up solutions we would never have thought possible!

Purposeful implementation of technology solutions has helped Dell Scholars support more students to overcome obstacles during their college journeys and reach our ultimate shared goal – the graduation stage.

We would love to hear from our colleagues in college completion: what technology is helping your students reach graduation day? Let us know @DellScholars using the hashtag #collegesuccess.