Colleges tap big data to help students stay in school

Amy Scott Jul 20, 2016
Universities are using data to decipher why some students drop out. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Colleges tap big data to help students stay in school

Amy Scott Jul 20, 2016
Universities are using data to decipher why some students drop out. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

In December 2014, Angela Baldasare and some colleagues at the University of Arizona were gathered in front of a big screen, clicking through a series of charts and graphs. Baldasare is the university’s assistant provost of institutional research.

“As we were toggling through different segments of our student population we started to see this trend,” she said.

They could see from the data that a lot of students with good grades – B averages and higher – weren’t coming back after their first year.

“So we’re looking at each other and we’re looking at the screen, and we’re realizing, ‘Wow, this actually changes everything,’” Baldasare said.

It changed everything, because the university generally hadn’t considered students at risk of dropping out unless they had a 2.0 – a C average – or lower.

“That means we’re missing a whole lot of students in the middle who really need more support,” she said. “We had been assuming that they were going to be just fine.”

It turns out that what Baldasare had discovered at the University of Arizona was happening at lots of other colleges, too. A company called Civitas Learning, which makes the predictive analytics tool the university was using, has been sifting through data from 55 different colleges and universities. On Wednesday the company released some of its findings.

“We found that, on average, 42 percent of students who are leaving these institutions have GPAs over a 3.0,” said Laura Malcolm, a vice president at Civitas.

That’s better than a B average. In all, three-quarters of students who leave without a degree have higher than a 2.0.

“So they’re performing well, academically, but they’re still choosing to exit the institution,” she said.

Some of those students will end up finishing college somewhere else, but nationally, “45 percent of the students that start in higher education are not finishing,” said Mark Milliron, co-founder and chief learning officer of Civitas Learning.

More than 30 million people in this country have earned college credit, but no degree. Little wonder that colleges are under growing pressure – from students, parents and the federal government – to do a better job in the graduation department.

“The idea is that if we can use this data to move the needle, even just 3 to 5 percent per institution, you’re talking about adding a million more students per year,” Milliron said.

At the company’s fast-growing headquarters in downtown Austin, young engineers with laptops lounge on sofas and giant throw pillows. The conference rooms are named after famous college pubs, like the Dog and Duck near the University of Texas, and the Thirsty Ear at MIT.

“We’re competing with Google, Dropbox, Oracle and other folks for data scientists and engineers,” Milliron said. “Part of our pitch is we want people to be excited about working with us and the idea of using their powers for good, right? Come help people learn well and finish strong.”

Schools are sitting on tons of useful data already, Milliron said, from grades and test scores to financial aid status, but it’s often siloed in different departments and software systems. Civitas pulls all of that information together to discover, for instance, that how often students interact with online course materials and discussion boards is highly predictive of whether they’ll make to the next term. So are certain courses, like freshman writing, where students who get Cs are much less likely to graduate.

The next step is figuring out what do to with the findings.

“There are some questions that we can only answer, like the ‘why’ questions, the ‘how come,’ those are questions that we have to answer qualitatively, by talking to our students, by understanding what’s happening with them in their lives,”saidAngela Baldasare at the University of Arizona.

At Arizona, a disproportionate number of students who were doing well academically but still leaving were female, and from out of state, she said. Some of them were homesick, the university found out, so it started a summer bridge program to help those students adjust.

That wasn’t 20-year-old Trista Karson’s problem, though she’d come all the way from Barberton, Ohio in the fall of 2014.

“It was a great and amazing experience,” Karson said. “I wish I was still there.”

She hadn’t realized she needed at least a 2.5 GPA to keep one of her scholarships. Her first semester grades fell short and she lost the money. Taking out more loans wasn’t an option.

“I never had a meeting or anything with an advisor about any of my financial situations,” she said. “No one had reached out to me until after I had left.”

Today a student like Karson would be on the university’s radar earlier and more likely to get support., Baldasare said. Instead Karson went back home to Ohio. She’s now a junior at the University of Akron.

This year she reapplied to the University of Arizona and was accepted for the fall semester, but didn’t receive enough financial aid.

“Ultimately, I’d love my degree to say that I graduated from the University of Arizona,” she said. “But at this point it’s more of a far reach.”

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