Using data to help students in higher education

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Link Alander, Rebecca Riley and Kyle Scott

The ubiquity of big data has made its way to higher education. Colleges and universities that utilize data are better equipped to keep costs down and help students achieve their goals.

However, as a sector, we do not yet have the sharing and cooperative infrastructure in place to fully leverage data. Formalizing and streamlining the data-sharing process will improve all of an institution’s efforts to serve students.

With better data sharing, we can deploy early intervention efforts to ensure students stay on track and reach their goals. We can also create more efficient pathways between institutions so that transitions are seamless and students are retained at a higher rate. All of this leads to better student outcomes at a lower cost to everyone.

Why it matters

We recently testified before the Texas Senate Higher Education Committee, on behalf of Lone Star College (LSC), as to the benefits of data-driven student services. We noted that the development and adoption of a statewide system in Texas that allows for greater collaboration between institutions will benefit students and taxpayers. The more data we put into the models, the more predictive certainty our models can provide.

Lone Star College has seven campuses and twelve centers spanning 11 independent school districts serving more than 93,000 students. To effectively deliver education across such a vast system, we must be proficient in using data.

Data allow us to provide targeted assistance to students at risk of dropping out, falling behind academically, or taking classes that are not part of their success plan. The result is improved completion rates and cost savings to the student. It is only with the right data that we can provide a tailored approach that addresses each student’s needs.

Reaching students who need a nudge

One of our most successful campaigns is targeted at what we term deferred completers. This group of students takes a few classes but never returns to complete their degree and never transfer to another institution.

Deferred completers need individualized attention due to the variety of circumstances that lead them to defer their education. With the right data, we uncover the reasons that motivate this choice and anticipate which students may defer their completion before they stop taking classes. LSC advisors and faculty can then reach out to students with individualized solutions for their circumstances. The probability of keeping a student on track increases with this approach.

LSC has been using data at scale since 2015. We provide system-wide training, called Data Bootcamps, in order to create a culture of analytics and train employees on data utilization. We have eight data collection centers across our system that bring faculty, staff and administrators together to dive into complex problems. By working cross-functionally, we can breakdown silos and leverage data across departments.

We have hosted Data Bootcamps for other organizations, including large healthcare providers and higher education institutions. It’s part of our mission to provide resources to the community. It also speaks to the need for collaboration in order to make data analytics as successful as possible.

Broader data sharing

In our testimony, we recommended a statewide data-sharing process through which colleges have access to student data already collected by high schools, colleges and state agencies. The decentralized nature of the current collection and storage processes limit the effectiveness of programs reliant on shared data and creates unnecessary roadblocks to student success initiatives.

With a central repository of student data, colleges and universities can build systems that learn from student experiences across the state. The larger the sample size, the more predictive our models become. Moreover, because the education environment changes so rapidly and the enrollment and advising periods do not stop as they once did, having real-time access to a large pool of data is the only way this can be efficiently and effectively done.

An ancillary benefit of this cooperative process is strengthened ties between K-12 institutions, community colleges and four-year universities. The more seamlessly these institutions work together, the better the student experience will become, and the higher rates of success will be realized.

Texas is not the only state that should look at this option. There is not a state that cannot benefit from greater collaboration. Asking for a national system is too lofty, but a national scale effort will yield more insight into student behavior and therefore improve student performance.

In a time of tight budgets, this is something that our state can adopt at a minimal cost. The data exist; we just need to share it.

Link Alander is chief information officer at Lone Star College (LSC). Rebecca Riley is president at LSC-Montgomery. Kyle Scott is vice chancellor of strategic priorities at LSC.