Ivy Tech Community College
Ivy Achieves is a pilot program that aims to improve student retention by having students complete 10 “high impact” habits. AJ Mast for Chalkbeat

With Indiana’s college-going rate at a historic low, Ivy Tech Community College is piloting a new program to keep students on campus by making sure they have 10 specific habits.

The program — called Ivy Achieves – aims to ensure that once students go to college, they complete their degrees.

Retention is top of mind for those in higher education, especially coming out of the pandemic, said Dean McCurdy, provost for Ivy Tech Community College, which has 19 campuses and 25 satellite locations across the state, serving 157,000 students and a retention rate of 47% from last fall to fall 2022 

With Indiana’s college-going rate of just 53% — the lowest in recent history  — and shifts in learning due to the pandemic, Ivy Tech leaders changed the way they think about what students need and want.

Ivy Achieves is one result of that mindset shift. Ivy Tech leaders created the 10 “high impact habits” by looking for what habits make a student more likely to stay. And the pilot program has promising signs as early data shows that the more habits students keep, the more likely they are to be registered for the spring classes.

Looking at data and consulting with students, faculty, and staff, Ivy Tech considered more than 60 different student habits, McCurdy said. 

One data point they considered, for example, was that first-time students are less likely to pass their courses than other types of students. And if they do fail in their first term, they are less likely to keep going to the next term or will enroll in fewer credit hours. 

Additionally, officials considered that having a C or higher in a class is a predictor of retention, and course success rates are lower for students who are Black, Latino, two or more races, or eligible for Pell Grants.

Using this data, leaders looked for what habits stood out as the “most important drivers of success,” McCurdy said, and Ivy Achieves was born.

The programconnects students with a “Campus Lead” or staff member on each campuswho helps the student work on the 10 habits that will help them succeed in their first semester, but also in college in general. 

Ivy Achieves initially started last school year at all campuses for all students, but was refined for the current school year and now focuses on “first-time college students who have historically been underrepresented in higher education.”

Ivy Tech is now piloting the program with 1,840 students on 10 campuses. The goal is to expand it to all 19 campuses.

The students in this pilot are first-year, first-time students who are seeking a degree and meet certain demographic criteria, such as coming from a low-income family or being Black or Hispanic. 

There’s no need to opt in; officials said students who fit the criteria are automatically part of the pilot, and their campus lead reaches out to them about the habits and resources available.

The habits are behaviors and practices around academic planning, finances, and campus life that can be tracked in real time and have helped other Ivy Tech students, officials said. For example, McCurdy said the habit of registering more than 30 days before a term starts gives students time to arrange child care and transportation.

While it’s still early to have more data on Ivy Achieves in its current form, there have been some positive initial data points.

Ivy Tech had a 5.4% increase in retention of Black male students from fall 2021 to fall 2022, which was a five-year high. Campus leaders said that’s likely due to the early version of Ivy Achieves, as well as other programs on campus that are student led. 

And for the students in the pilot program, the more habits they’ve completed, the more likely they were to be registered for the spring term. 

As of this week, 37% of the students in the pilot completed five or more habits and 63% have completed four or more, per Ivy Tech. For students who maintained five habits, 87% are registered for the spring, but that percentage jumps to 94% for six habits and 97% for seven habits –  the highest amount for this point in the term.

Overall, 58% of students in the pilot program are registered for the spring, according to the community college. 

“Our goal is to get them through those milestones as soon as we can because early momentum is key,” McCurdy said. “We know that these things are associated with success, so now we are very focused on making sure we can provide these things for students.”

Ivy Achieves aligns with a growing emphasis on the first-year onboarding process at many colleges, said Karen Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, a national network of community colleges focused on transformation to address inequity

And many of the habits of Ivy Achieves, like meeting with an advisor and having a roadmap, are “fairly consistent with what other schools say students need in the first semester.” If the initiative works, she said there could be potential national impact if other colleges apply these habits too, potentially for all students. 

But she does see some room for additions in the habits. They could work in tandem with the well-regarded “early momentum metrics” linked to college success from  the Community College Research Center – attempting at least 15 credits in the first semester, taking and passing college-level math and English in the first year, and taking and passing at least nine credits in the student’s field of study in the first year. 

And Stout pointed out that some of the habits rely on factors outside of school. The ability to pay by the start of classes and register early depends on students’ financial situation and the college’s affordability, since students are balancing the costs of tuition with other expenses such as child care and books. 

But that’s why supporting students throughout the college experience is so crucial, she said, whether they are struggling in a class or if they are looking for transportation because they have a flat tire or another issue with their car. 

“By the time that grades come out, it is too late,” she said. 

Making sure students have the support to achieve the 10 habits is where the “Campus Lead” role comes in.

On the Evansville Campus, it’s Marcus Weatherford, the campus’s director of student experience. He works with students and staff to educate them about the 10 habits and guide them to resources.

He’s working with roughly 250 students, including Donny Payne, who came to Ivy Tech after graduating high school in spring 2022, and plans to one day transfer to University of Southern Indiana for an engineering degree.

After attending orientation, Payne went to the Lamkin Center on campus, where student resources are housed, and started talking with Weatherford. 

At first, Payne thought resources like transportation help or the food pantry were for someone else, not him, Weatherford said.

But with Weatherford’s help, those resources kept Payne in school. A bus pass, for example, helped him get to campus this semester until he was able to get his own car.

“We were struggling at the house and didn’t have much for groceries… that’s helped a lot,” Payne said.

The barriers to staying in school are often greater for community college students than students at a four-year school, Weathersford said, and can be particularly discouraging to students in their first semester.

“Going to college can be an overwhelming process,” Weatherford said.

While older students might be proactive in asking for help, many will need time before bringing up their problems. So it’s important to have a point person invested in their success – like  Weatherford and his colleagues – to ask students lots of questions, like if they’re eating well or whether any troubles at home are affecting their studying. 

Before, Weatherford would wait for students to come with an issue and he’d direct them to the resources they need. Now, it’s about reaching students before that moment through email and texts as well as in person.

“If a student knows that there is a particular person who cares and is holding them accountable, it helps,” he said.

Payne agreed, saying he’s learned that if he doesn’t have what he needs, he can always go to Weatherford to ask for help. And Weatherford has watched Payne become a better advocate for himself. 

Stout said she supports having a set meeting schedule between students and advisors or campus leads to create these relationships and set expectations.

“Students do not engage with those key support offices enough,” Stout said.

Ivy Achieves is part of a larger effort to improve communication and in turn, retention with students throughout Ivy Tech, officials said. Colleges used to send all information to all students, said Jo Nahod-Carlin, Ivy Tech vice president for marketing, recruitment, and enrollment.

But now, she said information is more targeted and clear – removing higher education jargon and sharing information with the students who may need it.  

If a student has said at any point that they need child care, they’ll keep receiving information about child care options, Nahod-Carlin said, adding students who haven’t filled out the FAFSA will get information about getting help with the financial aid documents.

Stout added that in an ideal situation, students don’t have to repeat themselves, but an advisor or campus lead or faculty member can look at student records to not only see their academics but a more holistic picture of the student’s experience to help pinpoint resources.

“Many are coming to college and have never had someone say they are ready for the college experience,” Stout said, adding that that holistic approach tells students that they belong and the staff is there to help.

And just like data helped inform the 10 Ivy Achieves  habits, McCurdy said he’s excited to see the tools that will continue to be developed to help student success.

“Some of it is as simple as saying: in your program, if you were to take this course next, we would advise you to do that because students who’ve done that have been more successful or for you based on your own history, we would recommend that you take this course face-to-face,” he said.

Because ultimately, McCurdy said the goal isn’t just enrollment or retention or even graduation – it’s what college can do for the next step: a four-year university or a better job.

“Yes, we want to serve more students, but we also want to make sure that we are successful with the ones that we have and that success doesn’t just begin and end with us either,” he said. “College is not the destination.”

MJ Slaby covers higher education for Chalkbeat Indiana, in partnership with Open Campus.

Bureau chief and higher education reporter for Chalkbeat Indiana, in partnership with Open Campus.