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An Early Alert About Early Alerts…

Blog Scaling Student Success

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With the largest annual U.S. gathering of academic advisors happening at NACADA, many of us have our minds on the innovations and practices that will transform the advisor-student relationship and, ultimately, student success. No doubt, the role of integrated technology will be a hot discussion topic, particularly in light of the interim report of iPASS results released by MDRC in July of 2019 signaling the importance of thoughtful integration, intervention design, and potential for unintended consequences. While the iPASS preliminary results are limited in scope and represent a small number of institutions, there is a good bit to unpack in how technology was used to enhance advising in these cases and what outcomes were and should have been expected. We will dig further into that — and more about how Advising Works — in future blog posts.


Improve day-to-day efficiencies for your team. Create space for student engagement. Leverage new intelligence in your daily workflow.


Everyone has 20/20 hindsight, but how can we avoid undermining our student success efforts with the unanticipated?

What I’m about to say sounds obvious, but the reality is that there is room for improvement: we must think carefully about our planned interventions, considering the likely and logical effects of the specific actions we are taking and how those actions are apt to be received by our target audience. That last part specifically asks us to see our interventions through the experience of our students. What might be the emotional response? Does the intervention offer support and possible solutions, or does it trigger a barrier of some kind?

The 2014 EDUCAUSE benchmark report on integrated planning and advising services reported, among surveyed college and university administrators, a “relative lack of concern about a potential loss of the personal touch” with integrated student support technologies. Why wouldn’t this be a concern? Certainly it’s worth considering, as the same report cites student feedback that personal contact with a caring advisor is highly valued and not to be compromised. We know the same from studies such as the one by the Center for Generational Kinetics, in which students shared that they want advising connections that are personalized, proactive and focused.

Another way that we can avoid unintended consequences is to learn from others, specifically where data are available. At Civitas Learning, we studied a handful of colleges and universities with existing automated advising solutions. These campuses used multiple types of flags — alerts, kudos, attendance — consistently across their campuses.

You’ve probably heard it before, and we’ll reinforce it here. Consider this an early alert about early alerts — the way you communicate to your students matters. Automated alerts and transactional messaging simply does not make the most of human intelligence and the experience of advisors or student success professionals. Soon we’ll share more findings on the impact of automated advising, so stay tuned.

As you consider your own outreach and nudging strategies, plan to move from transactional messages to communication designed to transform behavior. And, don’t let an alert automate student outreach without your input.

At the heart of this is anticipating the impact these messages will have on the students who receive them. Be mindful of:

  • When you send a message,
  • How you say what you say, and
  • What you recommend.

Some commonly used examples of these alerts included automatic messages or alerts to students based on attendance concern, low class participation, not registering, low-grade concern, other academic concern, in danger of failing, not logging into online courses, course withdrawal, and insufficient academic progress.

But, what if the message changed?


When typical alert messaging was sent to students, we saw -1 to -10 percentage point drops in persistence. On the other hand, when the message changed to something rooted in a positive mindset … there was a 1 to 10 percentage point lift in persistence.

Of course, automating things where possible can scale the work of advisors, faculty, and student success teams. But, it should never replace perspective and expertise. While there’s no replacement for the human side of this work, there is another way to make a difference for more students.

Automated or transactional messaging can have an adverse effect, especially when the outreach lacks personalization or growth-mindset-based messaging. That’s an unintended consequence that none of us can afford.


Improve day-to-day efficiencies for your team. Create space for student engagement. Leverage new intelligence in your daily workflow.

Dr. Angela Baldasare

Angela is an experienced researcher, analyst, and consultant with a demonstrated history of success in data strategy and change management, helping organizations of all kinds effectively use data to inform strategy and achieve measurable outcomes. Angela’s work as a strategic consultant at Civitas Learning is informed most recently by her 8 years at the University of Arizona (UA). From 2014-2018 Angela served as the assistant provost for institutional research, managing the merger of UA’s institutional research and business intelligence units, and leading UA’s use of Civitas Learning products to support student success. From 2010-2014, served UA as the director of assessment and research for Student Affairs & Enrollment Management. Angela earned her PhD in sociology from UA and was an assistant professor at the University of Dayton from 2000-2003.

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