Degree planning, Starfish early alerts help MCC students find success

Fewer Metropolitan Community College students are dropping classes. More are successfully completing classes. And the percentage of fall semester students re-enrolling for spring is on the rise.

What’s behind these encouraging trends? MCC officials point to two student success initiatives launched last fall: required degree planning for first-time students, and early alerts for all students for concerns such as grades falling below a C and spotty class attendance.

“While we are still early in this work, and I know these aren’t the only efforts that impact our student outcomes, I do think the data looks promising,” says Dr. Kathrine Swanson, vice chancellor for student success and engagement.

Degree planning: An educational road map

First-time-in-college students are now required to meet with their academic advisors to create a degree plan, typically during their first semester. If they don’t, they may find themselves unable to enroll the next semester.

MCC Academic Advisor Brandon Hessing

“The idea is for us to get to know the student a bit better and figure out what goals they have for their education at MCC,” says Brandon Hessing, an academic advisor at MCC-Longview. “With that, we try to create a path or road map for what their education will look like.”

One way this helps is that all the classes needed for the degree are laid out before the student — which can be eye-opening.

“A student will say they just want to take nine credit hours that semester, but when they actually see how long it will take (to finish), you can see the gears start turning,” Hessing says. If a student is coming up a couple of classes short, an advisor might suggest taking summer courses.

The goal here is completion and graduation, ideally without “wasted” classes. Missouri’s 15 to Finish is an initiative to encourage full-time students to take at least 15 credits a semester so an associate degree can be completed in two years or a bachelor’s in four years. And the state’s new CORE 42 program specifies which general education courses are needed to seamlessly transfer to a state four-year institution.

A student’s degree plan isn’t necessarily set in stone. Degree Planner is an area of the new student management system called Starfish, and students can go in and make updates. The degree plan then gets sent back to the advisor for approval.

The Starfish home screen for students includes Kudos (green stars) and “flags” raised from faculty, advisors or the student, plus easy ways to ask for help, schedule appointments and see progress toward a degree plan.

Early alerts: Kudos and flags

Speaking of Starfish, that’s where the early alerts come from. Faculty can raise flags for a number of reasons. Perhaps a student isn’t attending class. Or isn’t turning in all assignments. Or is in danger of a class grade falling below a C.

One instructor flagging any of those issues might not realize that other faculty are sending alerts for the same concerns. But the student’s academic advisor would.

After a “repeated flag concern” — three notices — the advisor will reach out to that student, says Elyse Max, advising services developer for MCC’s Title III grants, known here as FOCUS.

In the case of a dipping grade, the advisor is likely to make sure the student knows about tutoring services. Sometimes a student just needs to be encouraged to talk to the instructor.

Starfish also has a “Raise Your Hand” button when students need help with something. If a student is struggling to pay tuition, for example, the message goes to the financial aid office and the student’s advisor. A student can also signal needing help in a course.

Students also receive “Kudos” through Starfish from faculty. These show up as green stars. “Keep Up the Good Work” is a popular example of a built-in Kudo. “Showing Improvement” is another. There’s even one called “Upcoming Student Leader,” which can be helpful for Campus Life & Leadership.

Tim Chappell, a math instructor at MCC-Penn Valley, says he gives Kudos to his students who are doing well (earning A’s or B’s). Several of those students have thanked him for recognizing their efforts. Meanwhile, students he has flagged for concerns typically approach him to talk about their attendance, missing assignments or why they haven’t done well on homework or tests.

Chappell says students should always know how they’re doing in his classes because he keeps grades current in Blackboard. “But a gentle reminder is sometimes all a student needs,” he says.

Starfish also allows instructors and academic advisors to work together, especially when a student is struggling. Often that takes the form of emails between advisors and instructors.

Kudos, flags and other Starfish messages show up not only on students’ Starfish home screens but also in their MCC student email.

All these notifications, along with notes entered into Starfish by MCC personnel, are archived in the system. For students who take classes on multiple campuses, or those who walk in to advising but can’t see their usual advisor, “these notes will follow them,” Hessing says.

If he sees a flag for poor attendance, for instance, Hessing typically calls the student and notes that action in Starfish, checking a box that will send the note to the instructor.

Starfish also has a button labeled “My Success Network.” On that page, a student’s instructors and academic advisor are listed along with contact information and a link for scheduling appointments.

This new student management system “is really helping to do better assessment of our services so we can see things like when the loop is being closed on certain issues,” Max says. “It’s helping us measure our interventions to see how successful they are, tweak as needed, and collaborate with other departments better.”

Starfish came to MCC courtesy of the three five-year FOCUS grants, which will wind down this year. The emphasis of the grant work has been on redesigning developmental courses (for students not quite ready for college coursework) and creating new pathways to degree completion, says Melissa Renfrow, FOCUS grant program director. To support those efforts, Title III funds were used to purchase Starfish.

“We’re reaching out to students promptly,” says Robert Goltra, MCC’s director of student success. “As soon as there’s an issue we’re aware of, we contact students to assist with barriers and hurdles standing between them and a successful academic journey.”

  • Improvement in MCC’s withdrawal rate (students dropping classes): from 15.4% in Fall 2016 to 13.9% in Fall 2017
  • Improvement in successful completion of courses (earning an A, B, C or S): from 68.8% in Fall 2016 to 70.2% in Fall 2017
  • Improvement in fall-to-spring retention (fall students who return for the spring semester): from 66.1% in 2016-17 to 67.6% in 2017-18


Watch an instructional video about Starfish, created and narrated by MCC student Christina Wright: