07/10/2013 04:49 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2013

A Digital Coach for First Generation College Students

For many private colleges in the Northeast at least, changing demographics have compelled them to focus on new groups of potential students to starve off decline. First Generation Students (FGS) seem to many of these college's as magic bullets of sorts. If only they could attract FGS in enough numbers, keep them enrolled, maybe their financial woes would be solved. Now, many schools seek these students out for noble causes, for all the right reasons, and try to serve them well. But, still research shows that retaining these students is still a challenge.

There has been much written about FGS. We understand their needs are different than traditional students. We have successful FGS models and theories. We have talked about what works so much so, we are starting to repeat ourselves. What we have not really done is clearly identify tools in our resource-reduced worlds to move from talk to effective action. Right now we understand how hands-on, person-to-person FGS programs, such as advising centers, specific orientation programs, and FGS enrichment programs work. While this is most likely the best way, few institutions have the resources they need to adequately do this. But asking for additional personnel might not be possible and is probably not sustainable in the current fiscal climate many colleges operate in. Instead, they try their best, stretching resources thinner and thinner, and more students slip through the cracks. In an era of declining resources we need to simply be smarter and better.

We might actually have an answer right before our noses: technology. We seem perfectly capable of thinking about educational technologies, such as MOOCS, on-line education, and big data analytics as game changers (how we see them depends on how we define them and where we stand). We are missing an opportunity to use technology to help us better serve FGS. I am not talking about retention software, which many of us already use. But, rather, I am speaking about technology geared towards this specific student group that would allow FGS students to connect and access critical information unique to them at strategic moments in their educational career, any place and any time. Why can't we have a social network of support for FGS.

What these students need is a facebookish app and web portal that meets them where they are and provides access to critical information in a safe way without stigmatizing them. FGS have no guides, they don't know what questions to ask or to who. And, they know it. Imagine if they could download an app on their smartphones and this app could ask them a few questions, link to data the college has and steer them to campus specific resources they might actually need: a coach in a box? What if this app could ensure that they get the right information at the right time, rather than ask a roommate and hope for the best. What if this app could alert college offices that the student might need personal intervention, guidance or advice. Through data analysis, we would be able to identify students at greater risk. If done right, it might just mean that our limited human resources are aligned with student needs. And, we could better utilize those limited resources to maximize their impact.

This is a perfect opportunity for technology to aid us. What would we need to do to get this right? We need to know what FGS need to know -- as they are all not the same and we can not assume it -- and when they need to know it. We need to ensure we get them what they need when they need it in a manner that is most usable to them. We need to direct them to next level resources and/or intervention. And, we need to find a way to connect them with each other, so they form a community of support. It would need to have a Facebookish feel, so it would be recognizable and user friendly. It would also need to be highly local in that it connects FGS with local campus resources. It would need to connect to university data systems, so we could identify and track information (students major, GPA, etc). FGS would need to be consulted in the design and resources, to ensure it would be used if build. In fact, they would be central to ensure its success. It might need to be virtually maned -- for chats with advisors.
With all our collective rush towards technology, why haven't we used technology as a first level intervention with these students? Yes, there would be an initial cost. But, unlike additional personnel, it would be onetime. This generation, especially, has grown up with technology, social networks, apps and smart phones. Since FGS numbers are growing and their needs are already identified, technology might just allow us to better serve them.

Technology is not the savior. In the end, we would still need human intervention, institutional will and a great plan that leads to FGS success. But, technology might help us spread our resources and target specific moments of high need and impact.

Richard Greenwald is dean and professor of history at St. Joseph's College, NY. His next book is entitled, The Death of Nine-to-Five: Permanent Freelancers, Empty Offices and the New Way America Works, (Bloomsbury Press).