Can Technology Get More Students Through College?

Officials at Virginia’s largest community college are turning to data analytics in the hopes of boosting graduation rates.

National Journal
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Sophie Quinton
March 10, 2015, 12:38 p.m.

AN­NANDALE, VA — The im­me­di­ate con­cern of the first-year stu­dent who had come to meet with Whit­ney Ham­mond, an ad­visor at North­ern Vir­gin­ia Com­munity Col­lege, was wheth­er fail­ing a math class would af­fect her fin­an­cial aid. But as the stu­dent un­raveled her wor­ries, it be­came clear that math wasn’t her only prob­lem. “I’m tied up right now,” she kept say­ing. “The only time I study is when I come home from work, at 11 o’clock at night.” She said she worked long hours to help pay her mom’s bills. And while she was a busi­ness ma­jor, she was more in­ter­ested in study­ing art. 

North­ern Vir­gin­ia Com­munity Col­lege (NOVA) re­cently in­tro­duced an ad­vising sys­tem — com­plete with di­git­al tools — de­signed to help ad­visors like Ham­mond keep stu­dents on track to earn­ing a de­gree. It’s one of many changes the col­lege has made after re­view­ing both in­tern­al data on first-time stu­dents and na­tion­al re­search. And it makes NOVA part of a trend among col­leges and uni­versit­ies to em­brace data ana­lyt­ics as a way of more pin­point­ing the obstacles that pre­vent so many stu­dents from reach­ing gradu­ation.

This year, Next Amer­ica will be fol­low­ing NOVA’s ef­forts to raise its gradu­ation and re­ten­tion rates. With about 78,000 stu­dents across its six cam­puses, NOVA is the largest pub­lic two-year col­lege in Vir­gin­ia. It’s where many gradu­ates of T.C. Wil­li­ams High School, which we’re also fol­low­ing, enter col­lege. Fifty-five per­cent of NOVA stu­dents are Afric­an-Amer­ica, Asi­an, or His­pan­ic, and many are the first in their fam­il­ies to go to col­lege.

Na­tion­ally, com­munity col­lege gradu­ation rates are low. One-in-five first-time stu­dents study­ing full-time are able to earn a two-year de­gree with­in three years, ac­cord­ing to fed­er­al stat­ist­ics. Over the past dec­ade, NOVA has raised its gradu­ation rate from 12 per­cent to 23 per­cent.

There are few bar­ri­ers of entry for com­munity col­leges: They have min­im­al ad­mis­sion re­quire­ments and charge re­l­at­ively low tu­ition. But that doesn’t mean an easy path for stu­dents to chart. NOVA of­fers 76 dif­fer­ent two-year de­gree ma­jors and 68 short­er cer­ti­fic­ate pro­grams. Stu­dents who want to trans­fer to a four-year uni­versity need to be on top of their in­ten­ded uni­versity’s re­quire­ments to make sure that their tran­script ful­fills them.

Many com­munity col­lege ad­min­is­trat­ors want to find ways to help stu­dents nav­ig­ate their way to a de­gree and, if de­sired, a suc­cess­ful trans­ition to a four-year school. But it’s not easy to keep track of such a flu­id stu­dent body. The ma­jor­ity of NOVA stu­dents at­tend part-time. Some dis­ap­pear for a semester, re­appear the fol­low­ing fall, and then dis­ap­pear again. Stu­dents don’t have to tell any­one when they switch de­gree pro­grams, which of­ten pro­longs their time at the col­lege.  

In an ef­fort to get a handle on help­ing stu­dents, NOVA ad­min­is­trat­ors are us­ing data to de­tect and ad­dress the chal­lenges stu­dents face. That’s un­usu­al for a com­munity col­lege, says George Gab­ri­el, vice pres­id­ent of NOVA’s Of­fice of In­sti­tu­tion­al Ef­fect­ive­ness and Stu­dent Suc­cess Ini­ti­at­ives. 

“Data guys are some­times al­most like a back-room op­er­a­tion” on some cam­puses, Gab­ri­el tells me on a re­cent vis­it to NOVA’s ad­min­is­trat­ive cam­pus. His port­fo­lio in­cludes the re­haul­ing of NOVA’s ad­vising and track­ing sys­tem, and he’s con­stantly push­ing the col­lege to base more de­cisions on data, with the full back­ing of NOVA’s pres­id­ent. At the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s weekly “cab­in­et meet­ing,” Gab­ri­el leads dis­cus­sion on the first two agenda items: stu­dent ac­cess (es­sen­tially, en­roll­ment), and stu­dent suc­cess (re­ten­tion, trans­fers, and gradu­ation rates). 

NOVA’s in­sti­tu­tion­al re­search team digs in­to all the data the col­lege routinely tracks — like en­roll­ment num­bers, trans­fer rates and course grades — and as­sesses ex­tern­al data such as loc­al em­ploy­ment pat­terns as well. They track stu­dent sur­veys and are con­stantly look­ing to identi­fy pit­falls. 

For years, NOVA gradu­ates had been telling the uni­versity that the ad­vising sys­tem needed an over­haul. Coun­selors were widely avail­able, but that didn’t stop stu­dents from dis­cov­er­ing — at the last minute — that they were miss­ing key cred­its and couldn’t gradu­ate as planned. The col­lege as­signs each stu­dent a fac­ulty ad­visor, but some stu­dents have no idea who their ad­visor is.

NOVA star­ted to as­sess the re­sources avail­able to new stu­dents in 2007, when it joined Achiev­ing the Dream, a net­work of com­munity col­leges primar­ily fun­ded by the Lu­mina Found­a­tion. NOVA pi­loted an ori­ent­a­tion for first-time stu­dents and stud­ied wheth­er par­ti­cipants were more likely to re­turn the fol­low­ing semester. Then in 2010, as part of its re-ac­cred­it­a­tion pro­cess, NOVA set a goal of im­prov­ing ad­vising for first-time stu­dents.

The new ap­proach, called GPS for Suc­cess, launched col­lege-wide last year. NOVA hired ad­visors, like Ham­mond, who each man­age a case­load of first-year stu­dents. The col­lege also made changes based on its Achiev­ing the Dream re­search. Now all first-time stu­dents have to take a place­ment test and en­roll im­me­di­ately in any ne­ces­sary re­medi­al courses. They must at­tend ori­ent­a­tion, meet with their first-year ad­viser be­fore re­gis­ter­ing for classes, and take the col­lege skills course.

These im­prove­ments to more tra­di­tion­al guid­ance activ­it­ies are just the first step. NOVA re­cently pur­chased a com­puter sys­tem called Agile­Grad that al­lows fac­ulty and ad­visors to share elec­tron­ic notes on meet­ings with stu­dents. It al­lows stu­dents to plot out the courses they’ll need to gradu­ate, and chat with ad­visors on­line. And like all Vir­gin­ia com­munity col­leges, NOVA has star­ted us­ing an early alert sys­tem called SAILS, or Stu­dent As­sist­ance and In­ter­ven­tion for Learn­ing Suc­cess. It al­lows fac­ulty mem­bers to send a stu­dent and ad­visor an alert at the first sign of aca­dem­ic struggle.

From her cozy cu­bicle, dec­or­ated with mem­or­ab­il­ia from alma ma­ter George Ma­son Uni­versity, Ham­mond can meet with stu­dents in per­son or check on their pro­gress on­line. “I get that on a daily basis,” Ham­mond says of SAILS alerts. She’s found that double in­ter­ven­tion — an alert from a pro­fess­or and a con­ver­sa­tion with an ad­visor — can be power­ful.

The busi­ness ma­jor who dropped by in Feb­ru­ary had come by dur­ing walk-in hours; she wasn’t on Ham­mond’s case­load. Ideally, the new sys­tems will give ad­visors more in­form­a­tion about stu­dents they haven’t worked closely with be­fore, al­low­ing them to give bet­ter ad­vice and have deep­er con­ver­sa­tions.

It’s too early to tell wheth­er the GPS for Suc­cess pro­gram will help stu­dents gradu­ate, or wheth­er the di­git­al tools are pay­ing off. Not all fac­ulty use the SAILS sys­tem yet, and not all ad­visers are tak­ing notes in Agile­Grad. There will al­ways be stu­dents who don’t read their email, and there will be stu­dents who face chal­lenges that the col­lege can’t ad­dress.

But ad­min­is­trat­ors be­lieve data-driv­en changes will make a dif­fer­ence in rais­ing com­ple­tion rates. Gab­ri­el would like to go even fur­ther, in­teg­rat­ing NOVA’s stu­dent data to cre­ate pre­dict­ive al­gorithms that identi­fy at-risk stu­dents or de­tect early aca­dem­ic or fin­an­cial warn­ing signs. Ideally, he’d also have the school col­lect be­ha­vi­or­al data, like wheth­er stu­dents are at­tend­ing class or what they’re say­ing on so­cial me­dia.

That kind of data col­lec­tion is con­tro­ver­sial, says Gab­ri­el. But if the col­lege had more in­form­a­tion, it might be able to help stu­dents chart a bet­ter dir­ec­tion. “That type of very pro­act­ive sup­port to stu­dents — that’s the only way com­munity col­leges will suc­ceed,” he says.

Next Amer­ica’s Edu­ca­tion cov­er­age is made pos­sible in part by a grant from the New Ven­ture Fund.

Contributions by Libby Isenstein

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