New data from researchers at the Southern Connecticut State University suggests pre-college experiences are weak predictors of success in areas including rates of retention, graduation and academic performance.
Dr. Michael Ben-Avie, the director of the Office of Assessment and Planning at the university, said the school partnered with IBM to collect data, which would help the school build academic development and achievement strategies. Ben-Avie says data highlighted how schools could successfully intervene and assist students.
“I think it has informed the conversations we have on campus,” he said. “We embrace the students we have, and I’m very concerned about this topic because in higher education, people want to judge the effectiveness of higher ed by these unchangeable demographics or pre-college characteristics, or by their wages in their first job.”
The research team utilized IBM’s Watson Analytics program to study more than two million data points that followed students from first enrollment to graduation, and accounted for those that left or transferred from another institution. Ben-Avie said data showed demographics, test scores and prior academic development did not necessarily indicate student success after graduation; more indicative are the student’s relationship with faculty, staff and peers, ability to work autonomously, capacity to handle cognitive complexity and set goals for the future.
“If I know I want to be a computer engineer, I need to know what courses I should take, I need to know what internships I should take,” he said as an example. “A sense of belonging is very important and we find it’s one of the most important predictors of student’s GPA.”
The analysis can help college administrators and student affairs, as data shows campus experiences can potentially outweigh pre-college factors. For example, when the research showed the school wasn't assisting first-generation college students well, the school responded by setting up a dormitory dedicated for housing such students, and offering faculty and staff liaisons that were also first-generation college students.
Ben-Avie said strong data on students can help administrators target lower rates of retention and graduation, making it easier to develop “high-impact, low-cost” strategies. He found that students were primarily dropping out because of financial concerns, which led the university to create a new position of financial literacy coordinator, which meets one-on-one with students about financial issues they may face.
This can also help institutions better tailor new policies and staffing decisions, as well as offer opportunities for students interested in pursuing data analysis. After conducting research, the university opened an Academic Success Center in 2015, as well as a Student Success Task Force to better gauge the needs and concerns of the student population. Counseling for students’ concerns is vital, Ben-Avie said, but only so far as students know about the opportunities that exist for their needs — as seeking out advice can be an “effective problem-solving strategy.”
“Development is not a spectator sport,” he said, explaining students often have to drop out due to credit card debt that cannot be met even when employed. “If, at that moment, a student could turn to somebody for help, the problem could be saved. But students don’t turn to others for help. We have to have university offices and strategies to help those students.”