Why one expert changed his mind on student success software

Analytics 'holds the promise of leveling the playing field'

Writing in the Washington Post, Jeffrey Selingo says he thought colleges were "coddling" their students through analytics—until he saw the software in action.

Selingo, an Arizona State University professor and the former editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, notes that first-generation students have helped drive colleges' recent enrollment growth. However, many of these students lack a financial support network, and end up dropping out before earning a degree. He notes that just 1 in 17 children from families who earn less than $35,000 end up getting a bachelor's degree by age 24, compared to 1 in 2 children from families who earn more than $90,000.

"So much for the meritocracy of American higher education," Selingo ruefully writes.

The 'unusual' case of Georgia State University

However, Selingo was pessimistic about how colleges were using data analytics to guide students—worried that it was encouraging them to be "risk-averse" and take only the classes they needed to graduate—until he learned about the "unusual" transformation at Georgia State University (GSU).

Selingo notes that GSU:

  • Now graduates 55% of its students within six years—up from just 32% in 2003;
  • Has awarded more bachelor's degrees to black students since 2011 than any other college or university in the country; and
  • Graduates its low-income students at a rate equal to those of wealthier students.

GSU's secret: The school began using data analytics to help students succeed.

How Georgia State University created a culture where numbers matter

For instance, the school's "Major Matcher" tool steers students towards programs they are most likely to succeed in, based on their academic record and GSU's years of historical data. The system also alerts students—and advisers—when students are taking courses out of order or failing at a high rate.

Until the school began using analytics to help students, "[t]hey were left to sink or swim on their own," GSU vice provost Timothy Renick told Selingo. "Now, we are more systematically giving students a fighting chance to succeed in these majors by offering entering diagnostics and early interventions."

GSU also uses analytics to identify students who have good grades and are near graduation, but may owe a small amount of money. In those cases, students may receive small grants that help ensure they stay in school and are able to graduate.

Selingo says GSU's success reveals the power of data to create a support network for students who need it.

"When used as a nudge instead of an edict for students," Selingo writes, "data analytics holds the promise of leveling the playing field between the haves and have-nots in American higher education" (Selingo, Washington Post, 10/30).

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

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