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Interventions that Work

At this year's Educause Annual Conference in Chicago, Bridget Burns, executive director of the University Innovation Alliance, outlined five initiatives can that really make a difference in student success.

group of college students with their devices

"The current design of higher education is failing students," according to Bridget Burns, executive director of the University Innovation Alliance. UIA is a national coalition of public research universities committed to increasing the number and diversity of college graduates in the United States and sharing best practices.

Burns used her own story as an example: As a first-generation college student who grew up in poverty in rural Montana, she struggled to navigate the college experience. She never saw an academic adviser, never learned to self-moderate, and in the end earned her bachelor's degree after seven years, 50 extra credits she didn't need, and $50,000 in student loans.

"Unfortunately, this is the best-case scenario for students," she asserted. "There are millions who actually just don't complete; the only credential they leave with is a student loan." If higher education were designed around students, she said, "people would have been paying attention; they would have actually intervened."  

Burns emphasized that these design problems are not limited to "at-risk" students: "The truth is, low-income, first-generation and students of color are our leading indicator. When we lose one of these students, this is when an institution should lean in and get curious, and unpack and reengineer exactly what got in the way. Because it's not actually something that's just unique for them. Most of the time, it's the exact same things that trip up all students."

How can technology change the equation? Based on the experiences of UIA members — their successes as well as failures — Burns outlined five areas that have shown the most promise, or, as she called them, "the things that are worth your time at your institution."

1) Chatbots. One major roadblock to change is that universities are overwhelmed, Burns pointed out. "We've never had any time to be intentional and actually work on our design." Chatbots can help automate certain tasks and free up staffers to focus more on students. "Where is there the most overburdened frontline staff that needs assistance and is answering repetitive questions?" she asked. "If you're smart, you should mobilize your chatbot to try and intervene there."

2) College to career. "If we rush students to graduation, and we don't have a meaningful and intentional handoff [between graduates and employers], it really doesn't matter. Because we've actually failed at this handoff piece for generations," Burns said. Redesigning that handoff with more intentional, robust career services is critical to the value of a higher education.

3) Completion grants. These microgrants help eliminate financial barriers to graduation by making sure college seniors can register for the classes they need for completion. "It is a financially smart move, to not stop students from registering and to actually let them register and immediately sit down with them and figure out a plan," said Burns. "They graduate within two to three terms."

4) Proactive advising. This is simply "knowing enough about your data, anticipating students who are going to drop out, and actually not just waiting for them to self-identify as having a problem — because students like me are never coming in," Burns described. "Instead, you set up a posture of the institution to be playing offense instead of defense, which is what we've always been doing."   

5) Predictive analytics. Institutions need to be able to answer the question, What are our top 10 very specific indicators that a student is about to drop out? "If you have predictive analytics, and you know what those indicators are, then you actually design your institution to guard against those and to intervene, the second they happen."

Burns cited some impressive results overall: "Since we've been doing this work … we've increased our low-income graduates by 29 percent, in a matter of five years. We're also on track to produce 94,000 additional graduates. I'm not here to say that this is perfect. I'm just saying there are indications that whether it's the accountability, it's the leadership, it's the mindset, we've managed to create a space where campuses are actually doing real work and they're making progress."

About the Author

Rhea Kelly is editor in chief for Campus Technology, THE Journal, and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected].

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