Washington Post: How one school tracked—and retained—likely drop-outs

Analyzing student data revealed which students are likely to leave

Get EAB's expert take on this story.

Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) had a problem that faces many colleges, the Washington Post's Danielle Douglas-Gabriel writes.

While VCU administrators were fairly successful at getting students to retain to sophomore year, the school's graduation rates were still lower than they wanted to see.

So VCU started focusing on the students who were most likely to drop out—a cohort sometimes called the "murky middle," the Post notes. While these students perform well enough academically to avoid major red flags, for one reason or another, they are not likely to graduate on time.

Working with EAB, VCU advisors learned to look for new risk factors and implement several key strategies, the Post reports.

For example:

  • VCU advisors began monitoring for students who failed or withdrew from certain classes essential to their majors.
  • Advisors also set up new interventions for these students, like connecting them with tutors.
  • To make sure no one falls through the cracks, advisors used a platform built by EAB that helps them identify students who need an early intervention.

In one semester, the number of students finishing their courses rose 16%. The number of students who enrolled in the next semester rose 8%.

"It's a little bit too early for us to see what impact this will have on graduation rates, but it feels like we're on the right track," says Seth Sykes, associate VP of strategic enrollment management at VCU.

Why students drop out

At VCU, many of the "murky middle" students declared a math, science, or engineering major comparatively late in their college careers. The strict sequence of required classes in these majors meant that they started behind and could not easily catch up.

GPA can also signal that a student is at risk. After studying a decade's worth of transcripts from more than 150 institutions, EAB learned that two out of five sophomores with a first-year GPA between 2.0 and 3.0 will not graduate.

Read more: What can we learn from first-year GPA?

Ed Venit, a senior director at EAB, says the program targets a major concern for schools. "People are becoming really anxious about not meeting their enrollment numbers, so they're turning to [big data] not just as the moral imperative—it's the right thing to do—but also as a financial imperative," he explains.

"The platform helps us identify students who are either spinning their wheels or starting late in their classes," says Sykes. "Advisors can then have the conversation 'Is this an appropriate major for you?'" (Douglas-Gabriel, Washington Post, 6/14).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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