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Paul Smith’s College has discovered one way technology can help with student retention: helping the college more effectively bother the hell out of students who are at risk of dropping out.

The small, private college in upstate New York recently teamed up with Starfish Retention Solutions to institute an electronic "flagging" system that allows a student’s instructors, adviser and other officials to keep each other apprised if the student begins to fall behind on grades, attendance, health or financial aid forms, or any other obligations the student needs to fulfill to stay enrolled.

If delinquency on any of these fronts pushes a student to the brink of suspension, everyone in on that student’s "behavioral intervention team" — which might include eight or nine officials from the faculty and various campus offices — cut loose a volley of reminders urging him or her to shape up.

"Sometimes they’re a little irritated, but they usually get it taken care of," says Loralyn Taylor, the registrar and director of institutional research at Paul Smith’s.

Flags representing behavior that more mildly endangers a student’s chances of staying enrolled and graduating — several missed classes, a missing immunization form, declining grades — do not summon all hands on deck, but automatic alerts might still go out to multiple faculty and staff members that might be able to nudge that student back on course.

So far, the system appears to be working. Since putting it into place last fall, retention is up across the board — especially among bachelor’s degree candidates returning for a third year, for whom retention has risen by 12 percent. The rate of students earning at least one ‘D’ or ‘F’ grade per semester has decreased by 10 percent. “In 18 months since the program was implemented, retention increases have resulted in an additional $540,000 in net student revenue,” says Taylor.

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