Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Data Fueling Scale and Change in Higher Education

January 27, 2016

Last month, I spoke at a meeting of university and college leaders in New Mexico.  After outlining some of the initiatives that we have implemented at Georgia State University to raise our graduation rates by 22 percentage points, I received an interesting comment.  The president of a small college with enrollments under 2,000 lamented, “Sure, you can implement these programs at a big university like Georgia State, but how can small colleges do the same?”

How times have changed.  When I assumed the position of head of student-success programs at Georgia State eight years ago, the conversation was very different.  Our graduation rates were far too low, and there were significant achievement gaps between students based on race, ethnicity and income level.  In short, we were a typical, large public university.

It’s not that we didn’t know what would help us to improve.  Georgia State enrolls large numbers of students who come from populations that typically struggle in college.  Among our 51,000 students, 63% are non-white, 60% are Pell eligible.  Our student body is among the most diverse in the nation—and one of the most economically challenged.  Thousands of our students are the first in their families to attend college.  In order to increase graduation rates, we knew that we needed to provide students with far more personalized assistance.  We just didn’t know how to do it.

Working with a handful of other large, public universities such as Arizona State University and the University of Central Florida and with groups like the University Innovation Alliance, we are developing a model of post-secondary education that is highly personalized and offered at scale, powered by data.  What is emerging from these efforts is exciting, not just for our own campuses, but for the nation.

At Georgia State, for instance, we conducted an assessment of our academic advising six years ago.  The results were sobering.  With tens of thousands of at-risk students, advisors were overwhelmed.  Too many students were struggling—dropping and failing courses, pursuing the wrong majors relative to their background and ability, or simply registering for courses that did not apply to their degree programs.  

With no solution for the problem at hand, we collaborated with the Education Advisory Board (EAB) to invent one.  Using ten years of Georgia State data—over two million grades—we identified past, recurring academic behaviors that correlated to students struggling.  That led us to ask a simple question: What would happen if we intervened when the problem first surfaced rather than after it had spread?   How many more students could we help to graduate?

The result was a new type of data-based advising platform that identifies more than 800 discrete problems, like a student registering for the wrong course, doing poorly in a prerequisite course, or declaring a major that does not fit their ability.  When an alert goes off, an advisor proactively reaches out to the student, typically within 48 hours.  Over the past twelve months, we have had more than 43,000 one-on-one meetings with students that stemmed from this platform.   

 We have used this same pairing of technology/data and human interaction in several other new student-success initiatives.  We use data to help target micro-grants to maximize the impact of need-based aid.  Our Panther Retention Grant program has helped prevent more than 7,000 Georgia State students from dropping out for financial reasons over the past four years—with an average grant of only $900 each.  We have used flipped classrooms with adaptive learning to transform outcomes in all of our introductory math courses.  Six years ago—under a traditional lecture-class format—43% of the students taking college math were getting non-passing grades.  Today, that rate is just 19%.

 Why are these innovations so important, not just to Georgia State but to the nation?  They are transformative.  Georgia State has increased its graduation rates by 22% at the same time that we have doubled the number of low-income, first generation students that we enroll.  Even more importantly, we have evened the playing field between different student populations.  This past year, our first-generation, Pell-eligible, black, and Latino students all graduated at rates at or above the rates for the student body overall—making Georgia State the only public university of its size nationally that has eliminated the achievement gap.  

The question used to be: “How can large, public universities afford to offer personalized attention to students at scale?”   The question today is: “How can they afford not to?"

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