Oct 12 2021

Higher Education Turns to Data Analytics to Bolster Student Success

Colleges and universities collect and analyze real-time student data to identify and support at-risk students.

In an effort to improve student retention, Gannon University administrators are using data analytics to identify at-risk students — and they’re doing it even before freshmen students set foot on campus.

For example, statistics show a strong correlation between high school GPA and first-year college performance, says Steve Mauro, vice president for strategy and campus operations at Gannon, a private Catholic university based in Erie, Penn.

“We know the threshold that puts them at risk, so when we accepted these new students, we made sure we paired them with advisers and had them sign up for classes that focused on their strengths their first year, and avoided classes where they had weaknesses,” he says. “That way, they can get off to a good start.”

Higher education institutions are increasingly investing in data analytics to identify students at risk of dropping out, paying particular attention to first-generation students and those who come from low-income backgrounds or historically marginalized communities.

When colleges identify at-risk students, they can intervene with technology, support services and campus resources, such as tutoring and financial aid, to help students succeed academically and flourish on campus.

“Higher education is shifting from expecting students to be ‘college ready,’ and instead, they are increasingly recognizing that they need to become ‘student ready,’” says Kathe Pelletier, director of EDUCAUSE’s teaching and learning program.

In fact, demand for student success analytics increased by 66 percent during the pandemic as most colleges and universities pivoted to remote learning, according to a 2020 EDUCAUSE survey.

DIVE DEEPER: Colleges innovate to support at-risk students, inside and outside the classroom.

Gannon University Fosters Student Success

Gannon, which began using data analytics four years ago, uses a homegrown application with a central database that collects and aggregates more than 100 student data points from applications across campus.

A computer model determines which data points are most important for student success and figures out which students have those risk factors, Mauro says.

Administrators focus on three areas: students’ academic preparation and performance, financial well-being, and engagement, such as whether students have developed a community on campus, he says. More recently, the university has also monitored students’ health and wellness, especially as students dealt with increased anxiety and stress during the pandemic.

“We use technology to identify what risk factors are most present and which students have them so we can form interventions for students even before a problem becomes a problem,” Mauro says.

Tadarrayl Starke
If students say, ‘I’m thinking about leaving,’ we provide targeted outreach to those students.”

Tadarrayl Starke Associate Vice Provost for Student Success, University of Connecticut

For example, incoming freshmen may struggle with homesickness or feeling as if they don’t belong. Gannon’s data shows that first-year students who do not attend orientation or fill out a college survey are more likely to not engage in campus activities in their first semesters, Mauro says.

To help these students create community, the university proactively pairs them up with advisers and other students to make sure they have connections and people to talk to.

“It really helps them get plugged into the university,” Mauro says.

Gannon staff and administrators check a data dashboard four or five times each semester, including at key grading periods. If students are flagged as struggling, the advising center or the student development and engagement office reaches out to check on them.

Since deploying the data analytics tool in 2017, Gannon University has seen retention rates for its first-year students grow from 80 percent to 84 percent, Mauro says.

“We are seeing greater student success,” he says.

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Predictive Analytics Boosts Retention Rates

The University of Kentucky launched a student success initiative five years ago when its board of trustees challenged administrators to improve student retention and graduation rates, says Kirsten Turner, UK’s vice president for student success.

The Lexington, Ky., institution took a three-pronged approach: create a culture of evidence and be informed through business intelligence, develop a strategic communications infrastructure to reach out to at-risk students, and build a culture of care by designing interventions and programs to help students succeed, such as tutoring, advising and financial aid, Turner says.

UK standardized on an SAP HANA enterprise data warehouse that ingests data from 40 applications and databases. The staff uses Tableau software to analyze the data and identify students who may need support with academics, financial stability, health and social well-being. Then they use Salesforce customer relationship management software to call, text or email them.

Every week, about 80 administrators and staff members meet to discuss real-time student data — looking at big-picture trends and drilling down to find specific students who need assistance.

Steve Mauro
When we accepted these new students, we made sure we paired them with advisers and had them sign up for classes that focused on their strengths their first year, and avoided classes where they had weaknesses.”

Steve Mauro Vice President for Strategy and Campus Operations, Gannon University

It’s an open and collaborative environment where a staff member tasked with frontline student support could say, “I’m starting to see a weird dynamic with this subpopulation. Can we look into this and the data?” says Turner.

UK uses predictive models to estimate how many first-year students will return for a second year, and applies interventions to change those predictions, she says.

For instance, UK uses predictive analytics to identify freshmen who need financial assistance and provide them with additional grant money to increase their likelihood of staying enrolled, says Todd Brann, UK’s executive director of institutional research, analytics and decision support.

MORE ON EDTECH: Here are 5 ways to support lower-income remote learners.

In 2016, for example, he identified 178 students who could use financial support. If they didn’t get additional financial aid, he estimated that only 60 percent would continue their studies at UK for a second year. Through predictive analytics, he estimated that 75 percent of those students would be retained if the university provided additional funds.

UK developed a new scholarship program targeted toward those students that fall, and after they received one-time grants, 76 percent returned the next year, Brann says. Since then, the university has expanded that grant program to support 500 freshmen students every year.

Overall, UK’s student success efforts have paid off. The university has increased first-year retention by slightly more than 4 percent, from approximately 82 percent in 2016 to 86 percent in 2020, Brann says.

RELATED: Here are 3 ways to increase student engagement in online learning.

Student Surveys Provide Valuable Data

The University of Connecticut analyzes existing student data, but it also conducts student surveys to capture new insights — and, in the process, help administrators identify students at risk.

UConn, located in Storrs, Conn., has developed a software suite in-house called Nexus that is designed to enlist the entire campus community in improving student retention and success. Students can log in to the app 24/7 to create study groups with classmates, schedule advising and tutoring appointments, and connect with mentors and other resources.

On occasion, the university asks students to fill out a short online survey when they log in. It’s a 60-second survey that asks critical questions, such as how they are doing and whether they are thinking about leaving the university, says Tadarrayl Starke, UConn’s associate vice provost for student success.

Tadarrayl Starke
If students haven’t found a community, we tell them, ‘Here are groups you can connect to’ or ‘Here are a couple of ideas you may consider.’”

Tadarrayl Starke Associate Vice Provost for Student Success, University of Connecticut

“If students say, ‘I’m thinking about leaving,’ we provide targeted outreach to those students,” he says. “If students haven’t found a community, we tell them, ‘Here are groups you can connect to’ or ‘Here are a couple of ideas you may consider.’”

The Nexus app also integrates student data, including academic and behavioral data, from applications across campus to drive early intervention. Advisers, for example, can use the app to monitor student performance, communicate with students and track interactions.

“That system is phenomenal,” Starke says. “It gives us a well-rounded picture of students and allows us to better assist and support them. It’s not just looking at their classroom experience, but their entire experience at UConn.”

UConn’s Office of Institutional Research has also built data dashboards that help administrators identify at-risk students — for instance, to see how many students are on academic probation or have received Ds or Fs or withdrawn from their classes.

UConn’s Success 360 program, which serves first-generation students, uses the data to identify students who may need support so the university can proactively reach out. For example, if students have an academic hold because they owe $500, the university can offer grants to help them pay off their tuition, Starke says.

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“It’s designed to assist and support first-generation students even if they haven’t come in to talk to us,” he says.

That’s important because first-generation students are less likely to know who on campus to talk to and what questions to ask because they may not have parents or family members who can advise them on how to navigate college, Starke says.

Success 360, made up of a committee of UConn administrators, staff and faculty from departments across campus, takes a holistic approach. If students have financial problems, they could potentially be food insecure, which can affect academic performance. UConn can assist with that too, by providing emergency grants or free food from the university’s food pantry, he says.

“We review students’ files, see what the issues are and then say, ‘Let’s bring the students in to talk to them and see how we can help them eliminate some of their roadblocks,’” Starke says.

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