Hallmarks of the Breakthrough Models, #2: Student Support

Editor’s Note: This post is the second in a series of posts which will each highlight a distinguishing design characteristic of NGLC’s recently funded Breakthrough Postsecondary Models, as described in their profiles.

The barriers to college completion, particularly for underserved students, are relatively well-known: poor or misaligned preparation, prohibitive costs and accumulated debt, competing demands of work and family, and accumulated credits that do not add up to a degree. It also includes personal and social factors like low self-confidence to do college successfully, being unaware of the procedures and protocols, and not having a mentor or support system to rely on when struggling. Educators know that students do better when they are challenged with high expectations and are provided with the right kind of support that meets their needs.

In many ways, the ten new breakthrough models recently funded by NGLC are wholly designed to encourage and support completion and success. Supports are woven into the design of courses and curricula, platforms, staffing models, pricing structures, and tech-enabled tools. But the particular approaches to student support of three of the ten breakthrough models—Altius Education’s Ivy Bridge College, Ameritas College, and Rio Salado College—are distinct characteristics of their program designs. Here I offer five features that embody their approach to supporting students.

  1. They know their students. These institutions are very clear about the student population they serve, they understand the particular needs of that population, and they have designed a degree program especially for them. For example, Ameritas College serves working Hispanic adults for whom cost and language proficiency are major barriers to a college degree.  The degree program enables students to develop subject matter and college-level language proficiency (in English and Spanish) simultaneously. These institutions also spend time understanding the needs of individual students, by connecting with them personally through mentors, advisors, and instructors and by tracking their progress through analytics feedback processes.
  2. They build meaningful relationships. Learning is a social activity, requiring interaction with others. Rio Salado College’s degree program is delivered both online and in person, but Altius Education and Ameritas College’s programs are entirely online. These institutions recognize that face-to-face interactions are not the only way to develop strong relationships, so they intentionally build relationships between students and instructors and support staff as well as student-to-student in order to mentor, advise, assist, and connect regardless of physical location. They utilize technology to apply the most valuable attributes of face-to-face instruction to the online learning environment: screen sharing, live chats, interactive online whiteboards for the exchange of ideas, live tutoring sessions, and online office hours. At Altius Education’s Ivy Bridge College, students are equipped to identify their own needs and to seek assistance. Success coaches, instructors, tutors, graders, and support staff all have a role to play in helping students reach their goals. Peers also assist each other in peer-to-peer answer forums.
  3. They keep costs low. We hear too many stories of students who drop out without a degree and walk away with a mountain of debt. By keeping both costs and tuition low, these institutions reduce the financial burden on students and encourage them to persist to completion. Students will spend no more than $5,400 per year at Altius, Ameritas, and Rio Salado in their new programs. And Rio Salado serves some students for an annual price tag under $2,000.
  4. They utilize customized portals and early alert systems. Students, advisors, instructors, and tutors in these three institutions use assessment feedback loops and analytics reports and dashboards to know what students are learning and how well they are learning it, and to identify problems before they get in the way of success. Students track their progress through the degree program in real time. The institutions proactively provide resources or additional learning materials if indicators reveal that a student is struggling. For Rio Salado College, the RioPACE system is at the core of their approach to student support. The RioPACE dashboard gives instructors real-time data about how often students log in to the online platform, how long they spend on the site, and how quickly they progress—key indicators of successful completion. The same data are available to advisors, instructional help desk staff, and the students themselves. Altius has built this feedback loop into its instructional design process: if students across the board have difficulty with a specific learning object, instructional designers can revisit that learning object and find better ways to present the lesson so that students will master it.
  5. They offer online tools and resources. Students are their own best advocates and support systems—if they have access to the information and the tools they need, and know how to make sense of and use them. These institutions provide students with tools and resources they can access through the online learning platform. The tools are customized to a specific student’s need and scaffolded to a student’s stage of progress in the program, and they are easily accessible and available in real time whenever they are needed. For example, Ameritas provides many language learning resources that are personalized and electronic. The resources include on-demand access to a glossary; resources for listening, speaking, and interacting with others; and a writing editor with feedback in English and Spanish.

To learn more about student supports and other key features of the degree programs at these institutions, view their 2-page at-a-glance profiles:

Altius Education’s Ivy Bridge College

Ameritas College Educational Services, LLC

Rio Salado College

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