Institution of the Year: University of South Florida
University of South Florida
Claim to fame:
The University of South Florida has nearly eliminated the graduation gap between race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.
In the most recent cohort, black students graduated at a rate seven points higher than white students, Hispanic students graduated at five points higher than whites.
The University of South Florida is using big data and analytics to transform the culture of the institution and raise retention and graduation rates by leaps and bounds.
“I’d like to think it’s the institutional commitment and dedication to student success that has allowed us to get to this point,” said Paul Dosal, the university’s vice president for student affairs & student success. “And while many institutions will make that same claim, I think behind all of this — the analytics and the numbers — is the shift in the culture of the institution that has made all of this possible. It’s one thing to adopt high tech analytics, but it’s another thing to use it in a way that helps students on a case-by-case basis.”
Behind all the success the institution has seen “is a fundamental value statement which is that USF believes that every student we admit will succeed. When we level the playing field … they might run into some hardships and emotional issues, family traumas that might delay or impede their progress, but we believe that because they’re at USF, they have what it takes to succeed, so we mobilize everybody to provide that support when they need it,” Dosal said.
Dosal says the institution had tried the tutoring, mentoring initiatives, implementing living-learning communities and other things that most institutions try to improve retention and graduation rates on campus, and they all yielded gains, but the institution had reached a “retention plateau.”
“Our progress stopped, and so a couple years ago, we began to use the analytics platform differently,” he said. “Where I think we have made a difference and where we have seen recent and significant improvements are in the ways we’ve used analytical tools and the way we’ve developed a case management approach that have allowed us to target individual students in meaningful ways.”
Administrators formed a persistence committee to provide what we call the right support to the right student at the right time, and that approach helped us to get over that plateau,” said Dosal.
“I get a kick out of it in that the adoption of [hyper] analytics led us to develop an approach that’s a highly personalized approach,” he said. “We’re set up to identify students who are struggling at any moment in time, and then we can reach out and assist them with whatever that hurdle is.”
“A lot of the problems students face are financial in nature. So when they’re struggling to pay their bills, we’re in a position to know about that, and if possible, where necessary, we’re in a position to help those students,” he said.
Dosal recalled a conversation with his boss, Provost Ralph Wilcox, “on a late Friday afternoon in December,” in which the two were huddled to discuss “the plight of one student. Here we are, a university of 43,000 students, and we were able to talk about and address the needs of one student — through a decision that had to be made by the provost,” he said.
“A few years ago, we would not have known about that student. But we knew about that student, and we were able to take action and help that student,” thanks to the micro targeting of their analytics.
But more than anything else, Dosal said he and his colleagues are extremely “proud of having nearly eliminated the achievement gap between race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.” In the most recent cohort, “Black students graduated at a rate seven points higher than white students, Hispanic students graduated at … five points higher than whites.”
USF has been able to leverage data analytics in ways which noticeably benefit students and improve the university’s bottom line. For other institutions struggling with similar challenges, important takeaways are the ability to target and intervene on behalf of individual students to move the needle — over and over again. As universities continue to collect more and more data about who is coming to campus, the critical step will be leveraging that data to make a difference.
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