Episode 70: Improving Retention Rates Up to 83% with Jody Owen

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Shiro Hatori
Hello, everyone, and welcome to the higher ed demand gen podcast hosted by concept 3d. If you like our content, please follow and subscribe to us on Spotify, Apple, or Google. And if you’re on Apple, I love it. If you drop us a comment, it helps a lot. My name is Shiro Hatori. And I will be your host today. And I cannot wait to talk about improving retention rates all the way up to 83%. And for the conversation, I’m very excited to have Jody open. Today. Jody is the director at winter roads student success and Opportunity Center and coordinator for university academic advising at South Dakota State University. Welcome to the podcast.

Jody Owen
All right, thank you. Thanks for inviting me, I’m so excited to be here. And student success is one of my favorite things to talk about. So appreciate our time together today.

Shiro Hatori
I’m looking forward to it too. And I do ask all my guests this, Jody, tell me what you love about higher ed.

Jody Owen
Lots of things I love about higher ed. But two things that come to mind are, first of all, I really believe that education has power. I experienced college as a first generation student. So neither of my parents had a four year degree, but they always believed in the value of education. And I knew from the time that I was young that college college was in my future. But actually having that experience really transformed me and transformed how I approach the world around me. So I can’t say enough about how important it is and how rewarding it is to be part of an educational environment. The other thing that I really love about working in higher education is watching students and grow and develop. And on my best days, I get to be part of helping students grow and develop and making a difference in their lives. But I love to see those students who take all of their knowledge and experiences from before they came to SDSU. That could be 18 years worth of knowledge or 50 years worth of knowledge or whatever it is, and then start to merge in some of the knowledge and experiences that they’re having at SDSU to build who they are going to be as a person after they leave this university and start making contributions to their communities and to the world around them.

Shiro Hatori
That’s fantastic, and beautiful as well. Thanks for so much for sharing that with me. I’d love to start off with a little bit of your background and story. What’s Geordi story?

Jody Owen
Sure. So I mentioned I was a first generation college student, and really loved my experience in college, I felt like I grew a lot, not only academically but also, personally socially and, and just again, with making good contributions to those around me. I knew when I was in college that I wanted to come back to a higher education setting and work in that arena at some point in my future, and ended up at SDSU. I had worked at a couple of other universities initially in college admissions. And in those roles, I had the opportunity to supervise that campus tour guide groups, and found that my passion was really working with current students. So that drove me to come back to SDSU to get my master’s degree, so that I could prepare for a position working with college students. And after completing my master’s degree, or actually while I was working on my master’s degree, I became a graduate assistant in an office that that did to academic advising and supported student success and retention. And that was absolutely my passion kind of changed my career focus at that point in time. And I have been doing this work ever since for more than 20 years. Actually. That’s

Shiro Hatori
fantastic. So extremely experienced in that number I shared earlier around 83% retention rate. You know, it comes with time with a lot of hard work on some of it with Jodi’s behalf and her team’s behalf as well. And I actually recently had Andrew, your colleague on the show as well, which is how I learned about you because you know, he like mentioned, just like soft spoken like oh yeah, by the way, we have like 83% retention rate, and I was like what? Can you dive a little bit deeper on that? And he was like, Well, you know, I don’t want to miss you know, miss, say anything or misspell anything. And so let’s let’s have Jodi on the show. So I got in contact with you to talk about that specifically today. And I know a 3% is one of the highest retention rates you’ve seen, but you’ve also consistently seen above 80% over how many of the last years again.

Jody Owen
So three of the last four years we’ve been at 80% or higher at 3% is our institutional record.

Shiro Hatori
That’s amazing. And for you, for those of you who don’t know, we recently did some research on this and the average retention rate for you university or institution in the US is around 67%. And that was from statistics and data from 2021. So, again, huge, huge increase on top of that. Jody, what are some of the core components that you believe make up a successful student success and retention strategy?

Jody Owen
I think one of the most important aspects of a strong strategy is to have buy in and support from your campus leadership. And we’ve been so fortunate to have that at South Dakota State. We actually have identified students success as an institutional priority in the university’s strategic plan, which I think is just phenomenal. It’s out there on our website for everybody to see. And it’s something that every person who works on SDSU campus has to guide them in their day to day work. Our campus leadership has also put together some committees and task forces over the year that are focused on student success and retention work. And what I love about the way that those committees are designed, they are always co chaired by one person from Academic Affairs, and one person from student affairs. The subcommittee’s follow that same model, and then overall, we include administrators, faculty, staff, and students. So we’re getting all of the voices from our campus community involved in identifying what’s important, talking about what we’re doing. Now that’s working, talking about some great, great things that other campuses are doing that we should be implementing. Um, so I like that holistic approach. And I love that we’re working together with not only our office, but our colleagues in financial aid, housing, and residential life, international affairs, the colleges and academic departments, that all together, we have the opportunity to build some plans and make a big difference for our students.

Shiro Hatori
That’s fantastic. And I know, I literally just had a conversation with someone who’s trying to pull together all the departments or units within their school to have these conversations and create less silos. How long did it take you to get to this state? Where are you at now, where you have all these committee members are all with their own voice? Sure.

Jody Owen
I think our first major task force focused on student success started in 2009. And since then, we’ve had a couple of groups that have come back together and refreshed our model and looked at some new and different ideas. So that first year, you know, it took a few years honestly, to get through the planning process. I think there was a small committee that read a Student Success book together and started talking about well, what what should we be looking at and what are some subcommittees that we should form, and they took a year to create that initial plan. And then the subcommittee’s worked for an entire year, investigating effective practices and coming back with recommendations. And it was actually in that third year that those ideas were were implemented. And then we continue to kind of evolve from there, again, doing a refresh a couple of times on that initial plan. That’s

Shiro Hatori
amazing. Do you do you have any advice outside of just patients, which I know, you just basically mentioned, but outside of pension patients, that you would recommend to other institutions trying to, you know, create a committee and break down some of these silos,

Jody Owen
I think, investigate those effective practices, have some data to back up what you want to do, and put together a proposal that you can then submit to your campus leadership, to generate their buy in because again, it’s going to be their voice that really lends the power to your plan. So I think it’s really important to do your homework, make sure that you’re well prepared, and then present that to your leadership so that they are behind it and helping to move things forward.

Shiro Hatori
Gotcha. This is probably more of an opinion on a thought leadership or leadership in general, is who do you think should own that like doing the investigating and bringing that up to cross cross functionally or up hired executives? Who should? Who should be honestly

Jody Owen
I think it could start anywhere. When it when it first started at SDSU. It was actually our provost and our Vice President for Student Affairs at the time, who brought that together. And again, two of your top ranking ranking positions on your campus lends a lot of support and credibility to the process. So I think that’s great. But if that’s not happening on a campus, I think anybody who’s really interested can certainly do that. But they may want to think about who are the influencers on campus? Who could be good partners with them? So is it somebody who has positional influence? Is there a vice president or a higher ranking official who would partner with you to help move it forward? Is there somebody who just has an influential personality and can help to move that forward? I think being very strategic about who you work with to put that together is really important. And then I think getting to that Provost and He’s president level to garner the support is what’s going to help help it be successful.

Shiro Hatori
Thank you. Yeah, I mean, I think I’m what I’m hearing is if you think there’s data and good reasoning behind it should speak up, you know, whether you’re at, at that price level or underneath it, it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s an opportunity. That’s great. In our initial conversation, but before this, I love how you mentioned, you know, don’t wait around for students to come to you, right? Be proactive with your students. And that’s been one strategy or tactic depending on how you look at it that’s been successful for you at SD state. Can you tell us a little bit more about that? Sure.

Jody Owen
So we use that a lot in in the winter road center. With our programs, we call it proactive outreach, we don’t sit back and wait for students to come in and see us, we don’t sit back and wait for them to schedule advising appointments or to schedule tutoring appointments. Instead, we communicate with them pretty regularly and send them reminders or nudges that these resources are available to them. And I often think about the student experience, and I reflect on my own experience as a first year student, I didn’t know what was out there, I didn’t know how to ask for help, I wasn’t very willing to ask for help. So you can do a lot of promotion at the start of a new academic year. And at the time that you’re doing that promotion, students may think, Well, I don’t need that, or I’ll keep that in the mind for the future in case I need it. And if you send that follow up message later, you have more of an opportunity for that just in time communication. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sent a message to a group of students who have responded and said, Oh, I’ve been thinking about reaching out and asking about this. And so yes, I want to sign up for that, or I want to be a part of that. So I think for us, just opening that door and giving the students more of an opportunity to walk through has really helped us to get students connected with campus resources. Our tutoring program has done that we do outreach to students who are enrolled in courses supported by tutoring and supplemental instruction. And we’re pretty intentional about the time. So maybe a week before that first exam or a week before midterms, really being thoughtful about when students are going to to find that it’s very important to use the resources that we’re presenting to them. Our First Year Advising Center has a six week communication plan at the start of the fall semester, three weeks prior to the fall semester starting. And then the first three weeks of the fall semester, and then sends regular emails to students every other week throughout their entire first year. So again, just thinking about what are those milestones? What are their critical deadlines or timelines that students need to be thinking about, and sending them little prompts or, or encouragement in those times, and that can be really impactful.

Shiro Hatori
That’s amazing. And thanks for sharing your exact cadence of email and communication with us. That’s impressive. Did it take you a while to understand like, this is our, you know, our best working format, like, you know, three weeks before three weeks on and then when we every other week, you know, did it take a while to get there.

Jody Owen
You know, what really prompted that was the literature historically has said that students make a decision in their first six weeks about whether or not they’re going to stay at a university, we started to see some articles bubble up at one point that said, they make that decision in the first three weeks. So we knew that we needed to make a connection, start building that relationship in the first three weeks of the semester. And that’s what really prompted us to start that six week communication plan. And then the every every other week, I think just evolved from there. So how do we maintain this? We don’t want to do six weeks and then just drop the communication. So that seemed like a reasonable cadence cadence for communication throughout the year.

Shiro Hatori
It’s fantastic. And like you said earlier is the subject of the emails changes throughout the year, right, seasonally if it’s before midterms, and that changes, so you’re not like just sending the same message like hey, how’s it going? Every other week? Okay, that’s cool. Are there any specific emails that you see like work really well or like, even seasonality, like, you know, before midterms really work well, or, and this semester, that come to mind?

Jody Owen
I think certainly reminding students about important deadlines. So getting communication out about that drop add deadline at the start of the semester, when they when they have to make changes to their to their schedule, prior to the deadline, I think is really important. I think again, that timing of communication with tutoring where we’re sending that out right before they have a critical activity coming up in the class has prompted some activity as well. So think anytime there’s an important deadline coming up. That’s when students see the urgency and are more likely to respond. That’s

Shiro Hatori
great. Along the same lines, we kind of mentioned it before around, you know, breaking down the silos. But we kind of went into a little more detail in our previous call around how a student’s success can really partner better with marketing or marketing communications to create more effective student persistence and student retention, tactics and strategies. Can you tell us some examples of how you figured out working out with marketing or how you are today? Sure.

Jody Owen
So we have worked with marketing on our campus to some degree from the very beginning, just creating some flyers and brochures that we can hand out to students, so they’re aware of our programs and our services. But things really changed during the COVID 19 pandemic. We knew as we made the transition back to campus that we had to really be be intentional about supporting student success, being aware of students concerns of barriers that they might face to continuing their education, and being very responsive to that. But we also knew that we needed a very strong communication plan, so that students were getting the information that they needed, and they felt supported. At that point, we created a committee called SOS it was supporting our students. And we had members from various offices across campus, I was on that team and Andrew from University Marketing and Communications was on that team. So we work together very intensely through that project. And we’ve been working closely together ever since. So we’ve done some we’ve partnered on some social media activities, where we’ve done some live events through SDSU, social media channels, or some q&a sessions through those social media channels. They helped us to develop our own personal office level, social media platforms as well. And so that was really helpful. And then, each semester, after we complete early registration, we run what’s called a persistence campaign where we reach out to students who have not registered for the next semester, but our, but have not applied for graduation in the current semester yet either. And we just reach out to them to see what their plans are, to find out if they if they plan to return, but they just have some barriers that they need to remove in order to make that happen. And then we provide them with some support to remove those barriers so we can get them registered, our University Marketing office, does some work with us helping with that communication promoting the campaign through social media. So that has been a strong partnership for us as well. That’s

Shiro Hatori
fantastic. And do you have like a weekly cadence setup of, you know, a meetings or connecting with Mark comm?

Jody Owen
We don’t necessarily have regular meetings, but I would say the outreach is mutual. There are times when we are doing things in our office, and I will reach out to somebody in marketing and say, Hey, we’re doing this, we feel like this is a great marketing opportunity, can you help to support this event or this program? And there are times when somebody from the marketing office will reach out to me and say, We want to promote information in this area? What are you doing? How can you help us to share more information with the campus community? So it’s not necessarily our regular meeting schedule? But I would say it’s a very mutual relationship.

Shiro Hatori
That’s interesting. You’re almost past the point of meeting the standard meetings, because you’ve been working so well together for the last 20 years. That’s, that’s fantastic. A lot of people I talk to her like, they’re at the beginning stages, right? If you’re you’re past the, the initial, what is it friction that you might have in trying to stand something like this up. So this is great. You mentioned COVID, and how you know, things change and how you do outreach and communicate, has any of that like reverted back or formed into something new? Given that, like, it’s, we’re on the fourth year, right, coming to a fourth year and I was just listening to a podcast yesterday about how content has changed from a content marketing perspective, people are kind of going back a little bit towards what they’re posting prior to COVID. And wondering if any of this student retention tactics, tactics or methods have changed and gone back or shifted again?

Jody Owen
Yeah, I would say honestly, we have made changes for the better. I think a lot of our work previously was driven by in person meetings and in person services. We of course, had to transition to fully online meetings and services for a period of time. And now we offer a hybrid model. So every product or service that we offer, offers both the in person and virtual options with the exception of supplemental instruction, which we move back to in person option, in part because of the confidentiality related to to participating in that program, and in part because the engagement is so much better when students are there in person. But I would say we again, we really grew, we really changed and for the better during that timeframe, we had created a virtual front desk during the pandemic where students could click on a zoom link on our website and talk with a staff member and then get get transferred over to the meeting room for another staff member if they needed specialized support, we still have that now, we also have an in person front desk, but we still have our virtual front desk. So other than provide providing the in person option now, we haven’t removed anything that we added during the pandemic.

Shiro Hatori
That’s great. I mean, it means that what was added is working still. So that’s cool. I’ll take it one step back thinking more high level because we just got into the weeds here. Jody, what do you where do you see the role of student success moving towards as, as we look at the end of the year and 2024, around the corner, and you know, future beyond that? How is it evolving or moving towards something new?

Jody Owen
Well, I would say our students success practices will always have to have to evolve because our students are always changing. When we go through strategic planning processes, I always tell my team, we don’t change who we are at the heart of it, we are who we are. And we’re here for a very specific reason. That how we deliver our programs and services may need to be adjusted, where we invest our time and energy may need to be adjusted based on how our students are changing over time. So I think we need to be mindful of that. We know that there’s anticipation that student demographics are going to change in higher ed in the future. So we need to be watching those demographics at SDSU. And making sure that we are delivering or delivering our programs and services in a way that support all students and all student communities at SDSU. That’s going to be very important. And then making sure that the student voice is prominent in your planning processes is going to be very important as well. One of the things that we did about a year and a half ago was to host some input sessions for administrators, faculty, and staff, they identified the most critical Student Success needs, from their perspective at SDSU. And then talked about kind of did a rating system on how well we’re doing with meeting those needs. And based on that we developed some student success priorities. Last fall, we ran that same activity with a group of students, we worked with undergraduate students, and then separately, we worked with graduate students, and got their voice as well, and really took to heart the information that we learned from those input sessions. And, and we’ve made a couple of adjustments to how we offer programs because of that. So as an example, what we were expecting to hear from students is that they needed help with sense of belonging from from the perspective of of meeting other students and building some good friendships at SDSU. What the students told us was, they wanted to create that sense of belonging, but they wanted more help with generating connection with faculty and advisors at SDSU. So this year, we started what we’re calling a monthly mingle, where we host a monthly event in the wind trout center. It’s a social event, we have some games, we have snacks, and we invite faculty, staff and students to come to our space during those events, so they can engage with each other on a more personal level outside of the classroom. That wasn’t what I wanted, I was expecting to hear from students, I think, for the last five years we’ve been hearing the student to student connection, is what they’re missing. And I think we’re seeing some change in that. The other thing that we’ve done with those input sessions is modify our training programs. So we do a lot of training for advisors and Student Success staff on our campus. And we are really now focusing those training programs on helping people understand the student needs and those areas of students access priorities, and then also giving them some strategies or tools that they can use to support their students in those areas. So I think keeping your eye on the data, keeping your eye on the literature and and then listening to that student voice are going to be the three critical components of evolving in a way that’s really meaningful to our changing student populations.

Shiro Hatori
I appreciate you breaking that down. And you just mentioned in terms of trainings us was faculty and advisors both on understanding student needs and helping with student needs as well.

Jody Owen
Sure, primarily advisors and Student Success staff, although some of our advisors are faculty, we have a mixed advising model. So we have some professional advisors, we have some faculty advisors, so a little bit of a mix there. But primarily our office is charged It’s with professional development for advisors and Student Success staff.

Shiro Hatori
Gotcha. I’m just interested because I’ve been hearing some chatter around some institutions trying it out at the faculty level as well in terms of providing some professional development there. So that’s really interesting. I think I mentioned this before, but John Andric also told me that in their welcome week, events, so they’re welcome, we get, you know, all these events created for the student, they found that some of the smaller Student to Student belonging, community driven events weren’t actually as important as, as events that connected those new students, with faculty and with advisors and staff. So that’s interesting. You mentioned that as well. That’s great. Well, thank you so much again for your time I think we’re just about at wrap up.

Shiro Hatori
Where can our listeners connect with Jodie to see what she’s up to to learn more about all the good work you’re doing at SDSU?

Jody Owen
The best way to contact me is through my email, and I certainly welcome people to reach out. So I’m Jody dot Owen at SD state.edu JDYOWE N. And the sad state would be like South Dakota State. So email is the best way to catch me. If you want to follow our programs, activities, events and some of the information that we share with students, you can actually follow our office social media pages, we have Instagram and Facebook. And that’s SD state wind road. Great,

Shiro Hatori
thank you so much again for joining today and sharing all the knowledge of your student retention. Thank you so much.

Jody Owen
That thank you

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