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Colleges Advisers Coach Students Along With Twitter and Use High-Tech Ways to Track Attendance

As we work to teach our high school students responsibility, we've been telling them that once they get to college, no one will be waking them up in their dorm room or making sure they get to class. Well, that might not be so after all.

To keep freshman on track and ultimately boost graduation rates, colleges are ramping up counseling services and coming up with creative ways to improve class attendance. Counselors are sending emails, Tweets and making phone calls to students who are slipping behind. Some colleges are having students register their attendance with electronic cards as they enter the classroom.

Call it coddling or draconian or just common sense and efficient. In any case, these tactics increasingly are being used on campuses with the hope of retaining at-risk freshman and getting more students across the graduation stage.

Rather than waiting for struggling students to come to them—perhaps when it's too late—advisers at Middle Tennessee State University are being more active in their outreach to high-risk freshmen. "Many students are afraid. They don't know when the right time is for advising," says Debra Sells, vice president for student affairs at the university.

When a deadline is coming up or a student misses an exam, their adviser might send a note via Facebook or Twitter or make a phone call to see what's going on. "We are putting the burden on the adviser to know what students are experiencing," says Sells.

Is this extended parenting? "Just good academic coaching," she says.

Sells says the college, with 26,000 students, has been moving in this direction for the past three years, and initial results have been encouraging—as other campuses in Tennessee have found, as well. Although counselor caseloads at high schools are much higher, Sells suggests the approach could translate to that level by identifying students at risk and intervening at key times in the school year to provide support.

"Intrusive advising" is not new, but it is being used more and in conjunction with technology, says Michael Collins, program director at Jobs for the Future. As first-generation students navigate college, campuses will be using more innovative ways to provide hands-on support, he says. With traditional intrusive advising, a residential program may have a dorm parent to make sure students get up in the morning.

Leveraging technology to follow up on early warning signs of trouble is an outgrowth of that approach. And, with limited resources, it's a smart strategy to follow students and stretch institutional capacity, says Collins.

This fall at Northern Arizona University, some students in large classes are asked to use a "proximity card reader" to register attendance with an electronic card as they enter. It has sparked some push back from students, as NPR reported. Karen Pugliesi, NAU's vice provost for academic affairs, says it's really no different than having a seating chart, calling roll, or using electronic clickers—it's just a more efficient way of knowing who shows up in freshman classes with 50-plus students.

The relationship between attendance and performance is clear, says Pugliesi. "If we didn't think it was beneficial, we would be out of business," she says. Although this approach with electronic attendance taking sounds scary to some, the college has an investment in student success, and this is just another way to push the completion rates.

"The first year is a transitional year and students have so much going on," says Pugliesi. "We want to do everything to encourage them to make the right choice."

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