Matt Boisvert, Co-founder and President; and Rachel Phillips-Buck, Vice President for Student Success and Senior Consultant “Support must occur before student struggles undermine their motivation to persist -- thus the need for institutions to employ early-warning systems that, when properly implemented, alert faculty and staff to struggling students and trigger support when needed.” -Vincent Tinto
Universities are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain students, especially with the challenges from COVID-19. In a typical year, fewer than 7 out of 10 firstyear students return for their sophomore year across the United States. The reasons for students not returning, and the factors impacting a student’s success, are multifaceted and include academic difficulties, a disruptive life circumstance, an illness, an integration or transition issue or a lack of academic motivation or sense of community belonging. Additionally, the complexities that come from delivering a college experience during COVID-19 have significantly impacted how students view their institution, their experiences in and outside the classroom, and their future plans. Student engagement is a key factor that impacts the retention of every student. A comprehensive approach to identifying and connecting with each one is a great start to improve student success and retention.
Students have difficulty in college for many reasons. Whatever the situation that creates the hardship, these at-risk students must be identified quickly, and connected with touchpoint relationships so that they can recover and move forward on the path to success. Rachel Phillips-Buck, vice president for student success and senior consultant for Pharos Resources, was an at-risk college student herself so she clearly understands the challenges that students face in college and the possibility that those challenges can derail a student’s success.
A Voice of the Unheard
“Having been an undergraduate student who really struggled with motivation and self-discipline, I know how it feels to not be doing my best. I had a lot of shame that I was failing and at the same time I was struggling with the feeling that no one on campus could see me; no one cared that I was not doing well, and, most devastatingly, no one was offering me any help,” says Phillips-Buck.
Students in such situations need a person who will be on their team and say, “Hey, I see you. I care. Come to my office and I will help you be successful.” The use of technology to send a student an automated email with a canned message that says: “You missed another class today. This is your last chance. If you miss again, you will fail,” is not the solution. Students know when they are not doing well. They need a real person who can look beyond academic symptoms, understand them holistically, and give them the help they need to address their specific challenges.
“When students build meaningful relationships and find supportive connections, they are more likely to succeed and thrive”
This type of intervention requires building and nurturing real and significant relationships with students, understanding their thought process and emotions, and devising a unique strategy based on their personality and needs to help enhance their overall development, instead of relying on transactional communication driven by a goal to simply improve grades.
This is where Pharos Resources is remarkable.
Ensuring Student Success through Relational Retention
With a unique relationship-focused solution and approach, Pharos Resources helps student success practitioners identify at-risk students, eliminate campus silos, increase student engagement, and enrich a campus culture of student success. To Pharos Resources, the idea of student engagement revolves around “Relational Retention” that combines supportive connections with strategic intervention to help guide each student to success.
“When students build meaningful relationships and find supportive connections, they are more likely to succeed and thrive. We are invested in facilitating those relationships and making students feel like they have a team or network that is going to understand them and focus interventions to promote their success,” says Matt Boisvert, co-founder and president of Pharos Resources. The company achieves this by following four pivotal steps: Identify, Connect, Solve, and Measure.
Identify, Connect, Solve, and Measure
To begin with, using specific leading and lagging indicators, Pharos Resources helps schools identify the students who are at-risk or disengaged.
For instance, even before a student begins the campus journey, details about unique factors can be identified. These indicators help outline a student’s strengths and weaknesses. This data can then be used to identify underperforming students and understand specific risk factors that may be impacting their success. Successful institutions are using these leading indicators to better understand student needs and required support resources. “You no longer have to try to figure out who is struggling and where. Our student success solutions will help you identify specific students whom you should intentionally engage,” says Boisvert.
Since 2010, Pharos Resources has delivered a holistic, relationship-focused approach to improve student success. This is even more valuable today
Once the at-risk students are identified, Pharos Resources helps institutions exercise student engagement at its most fundamental level—connect with the students, have real conversations about their problems, and help them based on their specific difficulties. “Connecting with students is vital,” said Phillips-Buck. “Not only does this help schools understand where and why their students are falling behind, but it gives students a sense of support, meaning that they have someone on the campus to rely on and speak with directly.” Building a team of campus partners who have strong touchpoint relationships with individual students can completely transform a student’s experience.
This is followed by the next step- Solve. “Solving specific problems for students-such as getting them registered, helping them overcome a bad exam grade, working on roommate issues, finding financial resources and guiding them to choose a major- all leverage existing relationships that have already been established between the student, staff and faculty,” says Phillips-Buck. Because the institution has invested in connecting students with touchpoint relationships, when a problem arises, it can be addressed much more effectively.
When it comes to the measurement of interventions, Pharos Resources provides a combination of reporting and dashboard tools and a team of Retention Intelligence analysts. Pharos Spark is led by the company’s Director of Retention Intelligence, Viva Gore, who plays an instrumental role in helping schools understand the difference between student experience pre- and post-COVID and educating them on what needs to be done to effectively engage students, maximize retention, and ensure positive outcomes. Pharos’ data analytics services facilitate a better understanding of the student factors that have traditionally impacted retention outcomes, and the results of specific student intervention efforts. This approach allows schools to clearly understand how they can improve the entire process and continue to improve student success each year.
Pharos has a unique approach in higher education technology that combines the effectiveness of an all-in-one student success platform with a passionate philosophy of Relational Retention and its supportive best practices and consulting. The company leverages its technology, Pharos 360, to facilitate the entire process of helping schools identify and engage students. More importantly, their passion is focused on guiding clients to implement high impact strategies and practices that transform the lives of their students.
Technology with a Heart
At its core, Pharos 360 is a comprehensive student success management platform that reinforces and enhances the institution’s approach to identifying at-risk students, managing interventions, and building campus-wide collaboration around next-generation early alert processes. The system pre-identifies at-risk cohorts to allow for early intervention and provides scaffolding and support around struggling students throughout the semester. It uncovers hidden at-risk students and leverages existing relationships to provide thoughtful interventions.
Pharos 360 also provides tools to expand and streamline cross-campus communication and create customized Circle of Care relationships for each student. The platform connects to schools’ SIS and LMS to provide instant access to critical student information while supporting all processes related to capturing data, contacting students, managing cases, and sharing progress. Furthermore, the solution provides meaningful measurements of the school’s engagement and successes with instant, intuitive dashboards as well as the ability to run detailed analyses of activity in the system.
Pharos 360 is highly customizable and it can be set up to support a wide range of student engagement practices and processes, such as managing academic success, advising services, residence life, commuter students, tutoring, accessibility services, early alert, and now, COVID-19. For each of those unique student cohorts, Pharos Resources offers best in class solutions, with a robust set of tools for staff and faculty and the expertise on best practices.
Most schools that partner with Pharos Resources see a significant (3-17%) increase in first-time freshmen retention over three years. Even during COVID-19, the student engagement tools enabled many schools to achieve historic retention rates. The Pharos approach is not just focused on freshmen retention but also on engaging all students and moving them through to graduation.
Overcoming the COVID-19 Pandemic
The role that Pharos Resources is playing in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic takes the company’s value proposition to a whole new level.
Undoubtedly, COVID-19 has disrupted educational systems worldwide as students moved from in-person and residential to online and at-home learning. To gain a better perspective on the situation, Pharos worked with SkyFactor/ Macmillan Learning to develop and deliver a Student Impact Survey to students learning from home. “We created an instrument that was designed to help students reflect on and anticipate how they were going to handle these transitions. It helps campuses to understand key issues for their students during a unique situation and quickly identify specific students who need support,” said Phillips-Buck.
With responses from over 5,800 students across 26 U.S. colleges and universities, the survey highlighted a whole new group of at-risk students who were feeling less motivation and were missing all of the environmental benefits of being on campus. Integrating the survey results into Pharos 360 allowed schools, such as Mount Vernon Nazarene University and Anderson University, to manage and record student call campaigns in which they asked students about their concerns during COVID. By making direct calls or text messages, they engaged students directly and personally with an important message: “We’re missing you. We want you to be part of our community. What can we do for you?”
“We created an instrument that was designed to help students reflect on and anticipate how they were going to handle these transitions. It helps campuses to understand key issues for their students during a unique situation and quickly identify specific students who need support”
The results were both revealing and empowering. Clients were surprised to learn that as many as ten percent of students had concerns regarding food and a higher percentage regarding computers and access to technology. “These schools had to send their students back home where they don’t have Wi-Fi or a dedicated learning space; maybe they are the first in their family to go to college, so their parents don’t really understand all of the challenges of higher education,” said Boisvert. The survey allowed the schools to use the results to have very productive conversations with each of their students, addressing individual needs. Compared to those who did not complete the survey, those students who responded to the Student Impact Survey returned to their institution at 20-50% higher retention rates.
Pharos understands that schools are struggling with both budgetary constraints and a lack of necessary technological resources to address the management of COVID-related issues. Since March 2020, Pharos is providing technical support that helps new clients get up and running in less than two weeks. Additionally, Pharos’ partnership with Macmillan and its iClicker technology provides clients with discounted access to student surveys that help gather feedback about students’ experience and needs. Because of COVID-19, the need to identify new at-risk students over the longer winter break using Student Impact Surveys is critical. Once student challenges and needs are identified, Pharos 360 software continues to support students by enabling improved communication, engagement and support.
“Since 2010, Pharos Resources has delivered a holistic, relationship-focused approach to improve student success. This is even more valuable today. We are growing and offering our services to more universities,” says Boisvert.
One thing is for sure: Pharos Resources is leaving no stones unturned in its efforts to change the dynamics of modern day student engagement to help both students and institutions succeed for years to come.