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4 Ways Community Colleges Can Retain More Students

Community colleges are essential to rural communities, and the benefits of a degree are myriad. So why is it that so few students remain enrolled?

In recent years, and exponentially during the Covid pandemic, rural communities have been considered the “forgotten America.” As more of the U.S. population migrates to urban areas, those left behind increasingly lack resources and subsequently fall behind when it comes to economic development and progression.

Community colleges can play a pivotal role in helping to sustain and grow rural industries. With nearly a quarter of rural workers employed in healthcare, education or social services, community colleges are essential for building a skilled workforce through technical and vocational training. Additionally, community colleges often have robust transfer programs and partnerships with state universities for students planning to continue their education journey at a four-year institution.

There is a curious trend when it comes to education in rural America. Rural high school students have comparable graduation rates to those in suburban areas and higher rates than students in urban districts. They also tend to score better on standardized tests.

However, when it comes to higher education, the numbers seem disconnected. Only 28 percent of rural Americans hold an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, compared to 41 percent nationally. And this isn’t because they don’t enroll in college. Following high school, rural Americans attend college at a rate close to their urban and suburban counterparts.

The issue is that they don’t stay enrolled.

Four Steps Community Colleges Can Take to Retain Rural Students

The average retention rate for rural students at two-year, public institutions is 55 percent. With all the evidence pointing to the benefits of attending a community college, here are four steps community colleges can take to boost attendance and retention.

  1. Reach out to high schoolers. The first step in increasing degree attainment is to take early action when students are still in high school. One reason that rural students don’t attend college is lack of recruitment. In addition, many rural high schools have limited resources and students may not receive the nudging they need to consider higher education. Realizing that intervention was necessary, Ozark Technical Community College launched a program that plants advisors in high schools, providing proactive support to students considering higher education.

    To further these efforts and reach more students at scale, a community college may consider implementing AI capabilities. The college application process requires a multitude of steps and tasks. AI chatbots can provide proactive and reactive messaging to keep students on track. They can be configured to send periodic messages with pertinent pre-enrollment information and resources to students who may lack the necessary support and guidance from their community.

  2. Reduce summer melt with a text campaign. An unfortunately common term in college admissions offices is “summer melt.” The phenomenon of high school students getting accepted to college but failing to enroll is most prevalent among low-income students. The top reasons these students get knocked off course are failure to secure financial aid, missed administrative deadlines and lack of support from their family and friends. If the majority of a community lacks a college education, it’s understandable that its students would be influenced to shift their focus elsewhere.

    To address the issue of summer melt, colleges can implement text messaging campaigns designed to nudge students to complete enrollment tasks as well as align them with a continuous contact point from high school through college. Text messaging has held the top spot as the most popular form of communication for nearly a decade. And with an open rate over 200% greater than phone or email, it’s the most effective communication platform.

  3.  Launch a chatbot on your college’s website. Living in a remote area means that rural students face the unique challenge of accessing the physical location of a college. With miles between their home and campus, commuting can be inconvenient and public transportation limited or nonexistent. To complicate this further, according to the American Association of University Professors, 50 percent of full-time community college students hold jobs and of that group, 72 percent work more than twenty hours per week.

    With accessibility and time constraints, staying abreast of important information, especially during college business hours, can be difficult. By implementing a chatbot, some of these issues can be resolved.

    One of the many benefits of a chatbot is that it can provide assistance to students on demand, removing the need to be on campus during a certain timeframe. Chatbots can also integrate into platforms such as Blackboard, Canvas, and PeopleSoft. This allows for personalized resolution to student-specific inquiries in a remote capacity, whereas historically, these types of inquiries required in-person assistance.

    Lenord McGownd, assistant registrar of communications at OTCC, says that AI enabled the college to provide expanded service to significantly more students, 24/7/365. “Many of our students are also employed full-time, and AI helps us address their needs on their timeline,” he said. “In the first year after launching, our chatbot answered over 17,000 questions after hours and during holidays while our offices were closed.”

  4. Integrate AI into your financial aid process. Chatbot technology can be hugely beneficial in helping students secure financial aid. Many rural students are first-generation college students. Filling out the FAFSA® form can be confusing for students and their parents alike, but with hard deadlines and funding on the line, it’s imperative that it be completed. Ensuring students are aware of the many deadlines associated with applying for various types of aid is another major challenge.

    Chatbots are armed with the knowledge to quickly assist students with locating and applying for funding opportunities and can be configured to proactively remind students of looming deadlines. Integrating a bot into a financial aid page also allows students to connect to an adviser or make an appointment without visiting campus or waiting in a phone queue.

    Over the past few decades, the Hispanic population in rural areas of the U.S. has more than doubled. In many of these communities, English is a second language for students and their parents. This heightens the challenge of finding funding opportunities and obtaining financial aid. To better assist families who speak a language other than English, chatbots have integrated translation capabilities. Chatbots allow for seamless communication across an array of platforms, alleviating the stress caused by language barriers.

There are many factors that contribute to education inequality in rural America but implementing a chatbot can be one way for community colleges to counter them. is thrilled to partner with community colleges to help address the causes of inequity and make a positive impact in higher education.

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