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Paul Smith’s College has discovered one way technology can help with student retention: helping the college more effectively bother the hell out of students who are at risk of dropping out.

The small, private college in upstate New York recently teamed up with Starfish Retention Solutions to institute an electronic “flagging” system that allows a student’s instructors, adviser and other officials to keep each other apprised if the student begins to fall behind on grades, attendance, health or financial aid forms, or any other obligations the student needs to fulfill to stay enrolled.

If delinquency on any of these fronts pushes a student to the brink of suspension, everyone in on that student’s “behavioral intervention team” -- which might include eight or nine officials from the faculty and various campus offices -- cut loose a volley of reminders urging him or her to shape up.

“Sometimes they’re a little irritated, but they usually get it taken care of,” says Loralyn Taylor, the registrar and director of institutional research at Paul Smith's.

Flags representing behavior that more mildly endangers a student’s chances of staying enrolled and graduating -- several missed classes, a missing immunization form, declining grades -- do not summon all hands on deck, but automatic alerts might still go out to multiple faculty and staff members that might be able to nudge that student back on course.

So far, the system appears to be working. Since putting it into place last fall, retention is up across the board -- especially among bachelor’s degree candidates returning for a third year, for whom retention has risen by 12 percent. The rate of students earning at least one 'D' or 'F' grade per semester has decreased by 10 percent. “In 18 months since the program was implemented, retention increases have resulted in an additional $540,000 in net student revenue,” says Taylor.

At a time when higher education is focused intensely on using technology to help save money and increase completion rates, Paul Smith's College’s experimentation with data-driven intervention is part of a trend that has institutions clamoring for tools that analyze data in student information and learning management systems and transforms it into actionable intelligence.

It also raises a possible hazard of aggressive, data-rich intervention: How many people ought to have access to deeply descriptive information about a student’s background and behavior?

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) gives colleges a lot of flexibility in terms of designating campus officials that can be allowed to see portions of a student’s education records. “A school may share education records, or information from education records, with anyone it has deemed a ‘school official’ and has determined has a 'legitimate educational interest’ in that information,” says Steven McDonald, general counsel for the Rhode Island School of Design. “[T]hat is, in shorthand, any employee or agent who has a job-related need to know.”

In addition to professors and faculty advisers, that could also include tutors, coaches and disability accommodation officers -- and, as in the case of Paul Smith’s College, specially appointed “academic success counselors.”

Sharing information about students within their network of interventionists might increase the chances of salvaging a student from the brink of dropping out, but it also might pose some threat to privacy if designed poorly, says McDonald. “[T]he more that information is disseminated, the more chances there are that it will be inappropriately disclosed, even if inadvertently,” he wrote in an e-mail. Quoting an adage attributed to Benjamin Franklin, McDonald added: “Two can keep a secret if one of them is dead.”

Telling professors which of their students are considered “at-risk” based on factors that are not necessarily germane, such as whether a student is on academic probation, is a particularly thorny issue. On the one hand, that information might prompt the professor to be more attentive to that student and make sure she is on the ball; on the other hand, it might have the opposite effect of prompting the professor to write off that student as a hopeless case.

“Ultimately, you want to provide enough information, with enough context, that you can help the student without using that same information to bias those people’s actions,” says David Yaskin, CEO of Starfish Retention Solutions.

Paul Smith’s College believes it has struck an appropriate balance by letting certain members of a student’s “behavioral intervention team” know only about certain risk factors, and keeping alerts appropriately vague. But the college still reserves some discretion for exigent circumstances. “If it gets to the point where we’re going to lose that student, then maybe we do need to let everybody know so everyone can be part of that student's outreach,” says Taylor, the registrar. “So it’s always a balancing act.”

SunGard Higher Education has also built privacy protections into its popular Course Signals application, which scores students’ probability of success based on a mix of pre-existing variables and learning-management data collected in the early weeks of a course. An instructor can see the score, but they cannot separate a student’s academic history or demographic data from the behavioral data collected from that particular class. No one person can see component parts of the Signals score, says Tom Wagner, a vice president for product management for SunGard.

Another question is whether a college should automatically report that sort of information to the one party that actually has a right to see it: the student.

This is not necessarily a given. When Rio Salado College debuted its own data-based early-warning system several years ago, the Arizona community college decided against telling students if they had been determined to be “at risk.” (The Rio Salado official interviewed for that article did not respond to an e-mail inquiring whether this was still the case.)

But even at institutions that keep students in the loop, as Paul Smith’s does, the act of actually advising students based on their odds of succeeding also poses a dilemma.

“We’ve had a lot of discussion, over the last year, over how appropriate it is [to] say, ‘We really recommend that you drop this class,’ ” says Taylor, noting that advising a student to drop a course might even have legal ramifications if doing so ends up preventing a student from graduating in a timely manner.

The college’s solution has been to provide advisers with a carefully worded template that advises students to drop a class barring “a substantive change in [their] work.”

“What we are trying to do is to say, ‘Look, it is better for you to drop the class now than to continue and get an F,’” Taylor says. Better for the student and, incidentally, for the university.

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