About Erika

I currently serve as the Director of One Stop Enrollment Center at The University of Texas at San Antonio. I've been in the industry for over 11 years and greatly enjoy helping students and families realize their dream of obtaining a degree. I currently serve as the Chair for Electronic Initiatives for SWASFAA and am Texas Delegate.

Three Institutional Factors Impacting Student Attrition

Submitted by Memory Keller of Student Connections

In addition to the primary research we conduct, such as through our work with students and academic experts on our Advisory Boards, Student Connections regularly reviews findings from around the industry. Recently, we examined factors impacting student retention at colleges and universities in the United States.

Financial aid and resources available
It’s no surprise that students most commonly abandon their pursuit of higher education because of money.  In fact, ACT identifies the amount of financial aid available to students as the number one factor contributing to student attrition rates for all types of colleges and universities. (Wesley R. Habley and Randy McClanahan, “What Works in Student Retention?” ACT, 2004, p. 10). Financial aid services is also listed among the top factors.  Further, Ruffalo Noel Levitz reports that the high cost of schooling, an obligation to obtain full-time employment because of financial need, personal emergencies and uncertainty about the return on investment from a college education all contribute to student attrition (“2016 National Report:  Freshman Motivations to Complete College,” Ruffalo Noel Levitz, 2016, p. 4).

Choosing the right school and program
In addition to finances, uninformed decisions regarding which institution to attend and a poor understanding of the matriculation process appear to be major factors in student attrition.  The Institute for Higher Education Policy reports that choosing which institution to attend is a complicated and confusing process, especially for first-generation and non-traditional students (Tiffane Cochran and Ann Coles, “Maximizing the College Choice Process to Increase Fit & Match for Underserved Students,” Institute For Higher Education Policy, 2011, p. 3). These students often do not have the background or access to tools that will help them fully consider the different pathways to the achievement of their educational goals. Once they do select an institution, they are often challenged by admission and financial aid processes.  These factors often lead to students not selecting the institution that would best meet their individual needs and subsequently dropping out before they achieve their educational goals.

Lack of involvement and engagement
The third institutional factor impacting student attrition is lack of student involvement in campus life.  According to the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), the more involved students are with their institutions, the more invested they are in their education.  NSSE also has identified a correlation between student involvement and higher grades and completion rates.  It makes sense that feelings of safety and belonging can go a long way toward keeping students engaged and working toward their educational goals.

The good news in these variables lies in what they share in common: They are under institutional influence. There are steps you can take today at your school to improve student engagement, understanding of enrollment requirements and campus culture, and financial literacy. In fact, the more you consider these seemingly disparate areas, the more apparent it becomes that they are integrated aspects of one unifying goal: student success. You may find you have little control over one area. However, by seizing opportunities to make a positive difference in others, you can shape the common outcome they produce.

Low-Income Students Can Miss Out on Opportunities

When perception equals reality, low-income students can miss out on opportunities
By Memory Keeler – Student Connections, a USA Funds company

Over the past few months, I’ve been speaking with many colleagues about the nonacademic barriers to student success, and I often reference the 2016 FAFSA completion data. Of particular interest is the fact that the national FAFSA completion rate for high school seniors fell from 40.9 percent to 39.6 percent and that only five states – Oregon, West Virginia, Utah, North Carolina and Texas saw an increase in completion.

Low-income students’ misconceptions about financial aid
In October 2016, the National College Access Network (NCAN) released a report that examined the mindset of low-income students about their financial aid eligibility. It identifies some of the reasons that rate may be low, particularly for this population of students. The report begins by noting a 2011-12 National Postsecondary Student Aid Survey. The survey asked students to indicate why they hadn’t applied for aid, and 44.7 percent said it was because they did not believe they were eligible. But what is this belief based on?

The report goes on to explore current attitudes and behaviors toward financial aid among low-income students. It concludes that the belief that they are ineligible for aid often masks a troubling reality: they do not know whether or not they are eligible. These students are less likely to pursue aid opportunities. Because these findings have major implications for students and schools, they should help schools shape outreach strategies.

Getting resources to the students who need them
This is confirmed elsewhere in the study, where data show that, despite an abundance of information about student aid, the knowledge is not reaching the students who most need it. For example, 64 percent of the students who did not apply for aid reported they had no information about aid or had mistaken notions about it (for example, believing food stamps were a type of financial aid). Think about that: More than half of those who don’t apply for aid don’t understand what it is. Whether or not they are eligible becomes unfortunately irrelevant until we address that knowledge gap.

Further findings in the report identified a stark contrast in awareness of important issues between students who apply for aid and those who don’t. For example, 55 percent of students who didn’t apply believed that grants must be repaid, while only 12 percent of those who did apply held that belief. 32 percent of students who didn’t apply believed government loans were the same as private loans, whereas only 13 percent of students who applied believed that.

But what I found most telling among these statistics relates to this statement: “There are plenty of people I can ask about financial aid at my school.” 73 percent of students who applied for aid agreed with it, compared to only 34 percent of those who did not pursue aid. This is a staggering split between the two groups, and it underscores the importance of institutions raising awareness about financial literacy and other student engagement resources.

Although the sample size was small, this study does shed some light on why students may feel they are not eligible and do not apply. Particularly with the low national completion rate for all students, we need to focus more on getting the message out to those who need it. Students feel overwhelmed about the process to the point they are not connecting with the information that is out there. Institutions can address this with thoughtful engagement with students throughout the matriculation process and through college completion.

Guiding First Generation Students to Success

Guiding first-generation students to success

Posted on Behalf of Memory Keeler – Student Connections, a division of USA Funds

 There has been much research conducted lately on first-generation college students. It’s important to understand the unique struggles faced by this group of students to determine the best way to support them as they pursue success in school and beyond.

First-generation college students, by the numbers

Let’s start out by understanding more about this group of students through some statistics:

  • Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that 30 percent of enrolled college students are the first in their family to pursue a higher education degree.
  • That data also shows that 24 percent of students are both first-generation and low-income students.
  • Overall, 25 percent of first-generation students go on to earn a bachelor degree within six years, as compared to 68 percent of non-first-generation students. However, for students that are low-income and first-generation, that number plummets to just 11 percent.
  • According to 2012 U.S. Department of Education data, while about 25 percent of white and Asian American students are first-generation college students, 41 percent of black students and 61 percent of Hispanics fall into that category.
  • National Center for Education Statistics data shows that only 11 percent of low-income, first-generation students graduate within six years of starting.

Unique barriers to overcome
Transitioning to college can be a challenge for any student, but this is especially difficult for first-generation students without an experienced relative to go to for help. These students often miss out on insider knowledge of campus resources, non-academic skills and tips that could help them in their first year in college. In some cases, they may also need to overcome a lack of support from family members who don’t see the value in a college education.

There are further considerations when it comes to first-generation students who are also from low-income households. Often working more than 20 hours a week, these students may be dealing with worrying about meeting their everyday needs in addition to the pressures of pursuing a higher education. Many low-income, first-generation students feel like it is pointless to think about the future. They also may be dealing with low self-esteem, a lack of a successful role model and a fear of authority.

How higher education professionals can help

The good news is that there are things you as higher education professionals can do to help these students succeed. Like many aspects of making students successful, it requires educating them early and checking in with them periodically. Here are some ideas:

  • Become a regular presence in area high schools. Getting first-generation students thinking about college early is important.
  • Hold workshops to educate parents of potential first-generation students on what their child may experience in the transition from high school and college and some tips to help them support the student through that time.
  • Form a committee at your institution to work on ways of supporting first-generation students. This will get various departments involved and engaged.
  • Train your academic advisors on the challenges faced by first-generation students. This will help them to better serve the unique needs of those students.
  • Some institutions offer summer “bridge” programs for incoming first-generation students to provide them with a little advanced knowledge of what to expect in college. During this program, students can learn about support services available through the school, meet faculty and interact with other first-generation students.
  • Encourage first-generation students to take advantage of support services by assuring them that using these services is normal and asking for help is a sign of strength.
  • Work one-on-one with first-generation students during freshman orientation.


Conference: Thursday Dance Party & Things to Do in OKC

SWASFAA, are we ready to put on our boogie shoes and dance the night away at the SWASFAA Conference this year?  The Local Arrangements Committee has a fun night planned for Thursday, November 10.  We want everyone to think back to when they were in high school.  Pull out those old bell bottoms, neon colors, and short skirts, and then prepare to get your groove on with Super Freak, a local band that plays 70’s and 80’s music while dressing in disco.  Let’s hit the thrift stores, find the clothes we all thought were gone with the times, and teach the millennials about 70’s and 80’s fashion.

In addition to Thursday night’s entertainment, we have some other exciting things planned for the conference.  We will be within walking distance of the Oklahoma National Museum.  On the morning of Wednesday, November 9, if the weather cooperates, we will have volunteers available to guide you to the museum and walk around with you during your visit.  The museum opens at 9:00 a.m., which should allow everyone enough time to experience this important part of our city’s history.  There will even be some survivors available to answer any questions you might have about the Oklahoma City bombing.

Finally, there will be a Thunder basketball game (vs. Toronto) on Wednesday, November 9.  For those who want to attend the game, tickets go on sale on September 24 at 10:00 a.m.  Tickets tend to sell out quickly, but there is a ticket resale site where you can sometimes find last-minute tickets at a good price—if you don’t mind sitting in Loud City, which is where all the fun is anyway!  Downtown will be busy that evening, so everyone might want to plan on dinner in Bricktown after the game starts and things settle down.

We will have more information as we get closer, but I wanted to give you a little insight to what we are planning at this time.  The Local Arrangements Committee is excited for everyone to come see Oklahoma City!  Don’t forget to register for the conference at!

10 Tips for Better Communication With Borrowers

10 tips for better communication with borrowers
By Memory Keeler, Student Connections

As financial aid professionals, we know reaching out to borrowers in various stages of repayment is an important part of reducing or maintaining your institution’s cohort default rate. Here are some tips to improve your borrower outreach:

  1. Create a strategy for your institution’s individual goals and unique borrowers. Every institution is different. Work with your team to analyze your borrower data to determine what you would like to accomplish with your borrower outreach efforts and where you should focus your attention.
  2. Manage all active cohorts.

Managing multiple borrower cohorts is like holding four ice cubes in your hand. The one you’ve held the longest is almost gone, but if you focus only on that one and ignore the others, then you’re just going to be faced with the same dilemma next year when that one has melted and a new one takes its place. Focus on the cohorts on which you can have the most impact, but proactively reach out to borrowers in all cohorts.

  1. Employ a variety of communication methods.
    Because each borrower is unique, you can’t expect to reach all of your borrowers in the same way. For example, phone calls are effective because you can have a conversation with the borrower to answer questions about their specific situation and, hopefully, assist the borrower in reaching out to their loan servicer and resolving any issues immediately. However, not all borrowers are going to be available via phone, and you may not have current phone numbers for some borrowers. In that case, emails or letters can be an effective way to reach out and encourage the borrower to call you to have that conversation.
  2. Start counseling borrowers in the grace period.

The grace period is the 6-month period after most subsidized and unsubsidized loan borrowers are no longer enrolled in school. During this time, those borrowers don’t have to make any payments on their loans. This is a great time to start communicating with borrowers, especially those who have withdrawn from school, to establish yourself as a trusted advisor regarding their loan repayment. Use this opportunity to gather contact information for the borrower, so you can follow up closer to the start of repayment. Also, if the student has withdrawn from school, this is a good time to try to get them re-enrolled before the end of the grace period.

  1. Timing is important.
    Anytime you are trying to contact someone, you need to consider the best time to reach out. Mornings and evenings are typically the best time to reach borrowers on the phone. If you are not having luck reaching borrowers during a specific timeframe, try changing up the time of day that you make calls to see if that makes a difference. Also, be sure to call during times that the loan servicers’ offices are open. Once you get the borrower on the line, the goal is to come to a resolution for that individual and, often times, you need to get in contact with the servicer to accomplish that.
  2. Make sure the borrowers understand what you are telling them.
    When communicating with borrowers, whether over the phone or through an email or letter, really try to make sure they understand what you are explaining to them. Sometimes repayment options, and even borrower resources, can be complicated if you aren’t familiar with the terminology. Don’t use industry jargon and check in during the conversation to see if the borrower is following what you are saying.
  3. Offer helpful resources.
    If possible, create a page on your school website with resources (or links to other organizations’ resources) on topics such as taking student loans and loan repayment options. You can also put information about your team and any activities your office wants to promote on that page. When counseling borrowers, you can direct them to that page to learn more. Having this resource page will also validate to the borrower that you are who you say you are. With so many companies trying to get students and former students to pay for repayment assistance, it is a good idea to let your borrowers know that you are legitimate.
  4. Focus on long-term solutions, not a quick-fix.
    Truly acting as a counselor for the borrower means listening to that individual’s situation, providing information on all of the options, connecting the borrower with the loan servicer and — last but not least — staying on the line with the borrower and servicer to make sure a plan for long-term repayment success is established. Once the call is finished, ensure the borrower understands what was agreed upon and has all of the relevant contact information. It may take a little more time, but this level of assistance will improve the borrower outcome.
  5. Regularly gather as much contact and reference information as you can.
    One huge obstacle to effective borrower outreach is lack of quality contact information. Each time you speak with a borrower, verify all of the contact information you have for that individual. You can also keep your borrower contact database up to date by finding out which other departments on campus might also have contact information for those borrowers and compare that to what you have in your records.
  6. Use a cohort management system to keep track of your communication activities and borrower data.
    Whether you are conducting your borrower outreach on your own, outsourcing it to a third-party or doing a little of both, having a tool that can provide transparency around which borrowers have been contacted and effectiveness of those communications can streamline your efforts.