Technology and the modern job market are evolving at an astounding pace. The jobs of year’s past become less relevant as innovation drives businesses to find new ways to meet the needs of the marketplace. Higher education is no exception. In the face of declining enrollments, low unemployment and smaller high school graduating classes, colleges are forced to develop new ways of serving students and their communities.
The Rural Information Technology Alliance (RITA) grant exists at the nexus of the evolving tech-landscape, the modern job market and a shifting higher education environment. With a goal of training graduates to meet the local need for skilled IT professionals, dedicated grant staff at RITA colleges have had to develop innovative approaches to recruiting and retaining students.
Take Ridgewater College for example. With campuses in Willmar and Hutchinson, Minn., Ridgewater would appear on the surface to be an unlikely destination for the tech career training hub it has become. Led by RITA Grant Manager, Larry Handlin, grant staff have bridged gaps between the college and local tech employers, engaged underserved groups in the local community and advanced new approaches to serving students. “We try to know every student by name and by story,” states Handlin.
One new approach to recruitment pioneered by RITA staff involved flipping the traditional on-campus info session model. Instead of inviting interested students to campus, grant staff fostered relationships with local businesses and community groups, and brought the info sessions to the community. From Women’s groups, to Somali cafés, to a Micronesian Meetup, grant staff connected with community groups who would have otherwise remained unaware of the low-cost, high-return tech career training available at Ridgewater.
In addition to reaching new groups locally, grant staff fostered an unmistakable sense of community among IT students at Ridgewater. Regularly combining gaming events, with food and presentations by local employers, is one of many ways RITA staff provided opportunities for students to gain a sense of comradery with their classmates and instructors. Other efforts included field trips to places like The Nerdery, active support of the students’ CST Club and collaborating on the creation of local tech-community events like HackFest.
Academic literature is highly consistent about the positive outcomes that stem from both online and on-campus students feeling a sense of community in their learning environment. Considering the large body of research in support of this, it’s interesting that the approach taken by RITA staff at Ridgewater would be considered innovative and not the norm. Through the combination of their community building efforts and their proactive advising model, Handlin and his staff were able to make significant improvements to student outcomes, enrollment and retention.
North Central Texas College
When the RITA grant was conceived, grant writers included a model for wrap-around student services. Each RITA college has dedicated Education and Employment Advisors (or Coaches) who work with IT students, from enrollment to employment. Grant staff at North Central Texas College (NCTC) have increased the impact of this model with their use of InsideTrack’s comprehensive advising training, which emphasizes one-on-one student success coaching strategies.
Through RITA, NCTC piloted the use of InsideTrack, which provides advisors training and resources that are designed to improve student outcomes. The initial results have been so positive that NCTC is currently in the process of implementing InsideTrack college-wide.
Although Education and Employment Coach, Bekah Samaniego, brought years of advising experience with her when she joined RITA at NCTC, she describes InsideTrack as, “A better way of working with students.” Instead of an advisor merely providing answers, InsideTrack’s model teaches advisors to ask students questions aimed at guiding them toward making better decisions. In addition to a more inquisitive approach, advisors are given strategies to help students discover and connect with what’s really motivating them. That way, when challenges arise, advisors are in a better position to help students navigate difficult decisions.
“One area that has had a huge impact on retention is our Tutoring and Learning Resource Center,” states NCTC RITA Grant Manager, Susan Svane. “Students can come in to study, receive tutoring, prepare for certification tests and collaborate with their peers on projects and assignments,” says Svane. Housed within the IT Career Connection Center, the Tutoring and Learning Resource Center is supported by RITA and is unique in that it’s entirely dedicated to assisting IT students. Svane states, “The lab has been busy all semester and will continue to be supported after the RITA grant ends.”
Central Lakes College
Recognizing the need for a more hands-on approach to student recruitment and retention, RITA staff at Central Lakes College (CLC) developed and refined processes that led to significantly improved outcomes. For starters, grant staff established a robust communication flow with prospective IT students. This involved letters, emails and personal phone calls, all of which assisted prospective students in connecting with their interest and navigating the enrollment process. The added effort in providing resources and connecting with prospective students proved especially beneficial for first generation students and older students who tend to be somewhat apprehensive about returning to college.
With increases in the number of students entering IT programs at CLC, RITA staff needed an active approach to helping students remain successful. CLC RITA Grant Manager, John Hamerlinck, states “The aspect of RITA that has perhaps brought the most innovation and value to our students, and to the college, has been the positive, practical, and hands-on work of Becky Best, and Tambera Topp, our Education and Employment Advisors (EEAs). It is critical to our accomplishments.”
Hamerlinck continues, “Academic advising is at the heart of student success. For RITA students, advising is not an isolated service that is simply there if you need it. This is advising that is built on personal relationships and trust. It is preemptive and anticipatory, and offers regular, practical, personal advice that helps students navigate the sometimes intimidating and confusing world of higher education. I hope that we can demonstrate the value of this approach to advising, and that the college can use what we have learned, to add to the commitment to the college’s existing continuous improvement process.”
Pine Technical & Community College
Although not unique in this regard, Pine Technical and Community College (PTCC) has felt the impact of the trends leading to declining enrollments. Within this environment, RITA’s impact is unmistakable. In addition to consistently increasing enrollment in PTCC’s IT programs through the efforts of EEAs Emily Clifton and Kris Hanson, RITA’s approach will serve the college as a whole for years to come. By furnishing significant upgrades to classroom technology, IT courses can now be offered at a distance. This creates opportunities for PTCC to reach and serve new populations of students.
In addition to enhanced classroom technology, RITA has funded and created opportunities that will allow PTCC to sustain the impact of the grant. This includes a campus-wide customer relationship management (CRM) system that will improve PTCC’s ability to recruit and support students, as well as website improvements and analyses from higher education communication consultants. Key staff funded by the grant played a significant role in generating momentum for RITA and the college as a whole, as well. For PTCC and RITA partners alike, forward thinking approaches to student recruitment and retention will continue to benefit RITA colleges in the coming years.