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Colleges study successful students

Why and how some higher ed institutions are using data to profile successful students
University Business, November 2015
A leadership academy developed for students who are doing well academically at Thomas College helps ensure they also feel connected socially. This focus on low-risk students has resulted in greater retention rates over a three-year period.
A leadership academy developed for students who are doing well academically at Thomas College helps ensure they also feel connected socially. This focus on low-risk students has resulted in greater retention rates over a three-year period.

For decades, colleges and universities have used big data to track high-risk students and intervene as needed. Now a growing number of institutions are using data tools to track and analyze another group: successful students.

It is a radically different approach that many campus administrators believe will help them understand what makes students successful—developing a profile of success that can be used to help keep vulnerable students focused and ensure positive outcomes for all. One example: If the most successful students use the library or computer lab frequently, interventions for at-risk students could involve strongly encouraging them to take advantage of these resources.

Also driving this trend is the growing pressure on colleges to demonstrate effectiveness in teaching and learning to everyone from policymakers to potential students.

“There are increasing external and internal pressures on colleges to understand how students are successful and how they can increase that rate,” says Wendy Kilgore, director of research for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

The student success data can guide administrators in shaping incoming classes by identifying the best prospects. Many colleges have the tools—namely, constituent relationship management systems and data analytics software—but only a few use them to analyze success.

CRM technology remains mainly a recruitment tool, Kilgore says. When colleges do examine characteristics of both success and struggle, they don’t seem to differentiate the two efforts.

Anecdotal evidence suggests there is more movement toward examining success. Here’s how some higher ed institutions are engaged in that.

Using data to reward students

At Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, which has an enrollment of approximately 170,000 across 32 locations, officials use a CRM tool to track students through many stages: enrollment, advising and class attendance. In the last year and a half, the college has begun studying the data to understand what makes students successful, says Jeff Fanter, the college system’s senior vice president for student experience, communications and marketing.

Students engaged in campus events are often successful academically, data has shown. Advisors can track students’ progress step-by-step and can flag those who are doing well in their classes and introduce them to other campus opportunities that could support their development.

“We are in the infancy of gathering this data,” says Fanter, adding that the college will work to pinpoint the traits of successful students over the next year.

Such information should enhance recruitment, allowing Ivy Tech to better predict students who will succeed.

Tuition freezes were implemented in fall 2015 to help keep current students enrolled continuously—a factor determined to be common among graduates. To qualify for this incentive, students must be enrolled for a minimum of six credits in the fall, six in the spring and three in the summer.

Delivering data to advisors

Officials at Lasell College in Massachusetts purchased a CRM system designed to strengthen relationships between students and advisors five years ago. It’s used in part for a new advising model that’s structured so students have at least five chances to meet with an advisor each semester.

Students who go to five meetings have had higher retention rates, says Kathleen O’Connor, vice president for enrollment management. Over the past four years, the retention rate for these students has risen from 71 percent to 76 percent.

In addition, officials learned that incoming students with strong GPAs but weaker standardized test scores are more likely to be successful than those with strong test scores and weaker GPAs.

The CRM, Salesforce, displays live student data on a single screen. This easy access enables faculty and advisors to spot student performance trends more quickly and devise ways to improve outcomes, O’Connor says.

“Retention is a byproduct of students having positive experience,” O’Connor says. “If you can improve student experience, retention will go up.”

A market research class was assigned to run a series of focus groups on juniors to find out what contributed to their success. “We found that some of the things built into advising are reasons why they stayed, such as relationships with faculty and joining a student organization,” she says.

Enhancing the successful student’s experience

Officials at Thomas College in Maine have also been paying close attention to characteristics of successful students. “A big part of what we’ve done is take a good look at key indicators that they will be retained for the second year,” says Debbie Cunningham, assistant vice president of retention services.

Similar to at Lassell, the team found high school GPA and class rank are more indicative of retention than are SAT scores. “We were able to come up with three distinct groups who were low-risk, moderate-risk and high-risk.”

The college launched a leadership training academy for low-risk students with GPAs of 3.0 or higher in 2012.

“We know they can pull themselves together academically,” she says. “We need to know that socially they can pull themselves together as well.”

Over a three-year period, the retention rate of students with college GPAs in the 3.0 to 3.49 range has increased from 69 percent to 73 percent, Cunningham says.

For more than a decade, Northern Arizona University has administered a noncognitive assessment at orientation to identify first-year students’ strengths and weaknesses. Administrators at the school then develop strategies to better support newcomers from all kinds of backgrounds—including first-generation and low-income students and those with lower high school GPAs, says Erin Grisham, associate vice president for student affairs.

Students determined to be vulnerable academically work closely with peer mentors or staff throughout the semester. The peer mentors help the new students transition to university life and coach them in areas such as study skills.

University officials also meet one-on-one with these students—who often number in the thousands. This effort has been particularly effective in increasing the retention rate, which now hovers at about 75 percent. But much of the focus is still on at-risk students.

Northern Arizona recently embarked on a new predictive analysis project that will also examine the characteristics of successful students.

“It is marrying the academic success of students with what we know about incoming characteristics,” Grisham says. “It is really important to have programs and opportunities for all spectrums of students, not just those who might be at risk.”

Lekan Oguntoyinbo is a Dallas-based writer.

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