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Unlocking Predictive Analytics to Improve Student Engagement and Retention

The year 2015 was a turning point for data analytics technology. Now is the time for higher education institutions to put data to use and give students the advising support they need to succeed.   

For years, student success data were like collector's items. The information was systematically curated, but locked away behind departmental and technological siloes — and going unused. This created a growing frustration among academic advisers, who could see the data but not apply it. They were handicapped both in terms of intervening with at-risk students at the time of need as well as in accessing the kind of predictive analytics that can identify potential academic or other problems.

But 2015 was a turning point with notable shifts in how technologies are built to capture data, how campuses use data, and even the business activity in the data analytics space. These changes signal that colleges and universities are on the precipice of being able to take student success data out from behind the glass and use it to engage students and improve retention and graduation rates. But the proof will be in the pudding.

The timing of this shift is felicitous. While teaching students the knowledge and skills they need to graduate has always been core to the mission of colleges and universities, intense scrutiny around how institutions are managing those activities is raining down on campuses. Looking at some of the statistics around students, it's easy to see why there is concern. According to the latest National Student Clearinghouse data, only 52.9 percent of students who entered college in 2009 completed their degree within six years.

To solve this problem, advising departments invest in technologies that will help keep track of students, establish early warning systems, communicate with students, connect students to resources, and engage students at a personal level. The results can be powerful when these technologies make predictive analytics easy to leverage. For example, Colorado State University has integrated data to surface opportunities for proactive student support, to improve communication with students, and to involve students more fully in academic planning. These measures helped the university improve retention rates from 82 percent to 86 percent, and increase graduation rates from 62 percent to 66 percent. Institutions such as Oral Roberts University, University of Maryland Baltimore County and Coppin State University have also leveraged data to the benefit of their students.

On the other side of the coin, however, many institutions invest in degree planning/auditing tools for advisers but struggle to integrate these tools with other technologies that align with the advisers' day-to-day processes. This may be about to change.

Several events that occurred in 2015 have the potential to reduce this integration challenge for universities. First, IMS Global Learning Consortium created the Caliper Analytics Interoperability Standard to break down siloes that were being reinforced by data and provide a holistic view of a student's educational experience. In part, the Caliper standard established processes and systems to better integrate technologies so learning data can be leveraged on different platforms. While not all technology solutions available have received Caliper conformance certification, some major players in the space, such as Blackboard, D2L, Elsevier and McGraw-Hill Education, have — thus setting a precedent for emerging technologies to follow.

Additionally, news in the past eighteen months of several mergers, acquisitions and capital events in the space of advising and planning forecast promising changes in higher education. The EAB acquisition of Royall & Company and student support system Grades First, Hobsons' acquisitions of retention-focused solution Starfish and analytics collaborative the PAR Framework, the divestment of Campus Labs by HigherOne and its subsequent acquisition by Leeds Equity (which also owns iModules), Blackboard's acquisition of predictive analytics solution provider Blue Canary, and Civitas Learning's acquisition of CollegeScheduler are all signals that larger companies are looking to provide institutions with a continuum of actionable student data that is embedded in established workflow tools across campus. These events also demonstrate that the market for analytics offerings is beginning to align with the market for workflow applications in higher education.

All of these movements signal that institutions are one step closer to achieving their aspirations of better coordination through improved communication channels delivered by technology and process improvements. As we begin 2016, there is a greater chance academic advisers will no longer have to act like day traders, jumping from one software application to another to get the full view of where a student is and where he or she is headed. More integrated technologies will also produce longer strands of data that will reveal patterns and enable advisers to make counseling more personalized. And academic advising will evolve beyond transactional activities of degree planning and auditing, to include more holistic strategies like success coaching and career planning.

But in order to achieve this, the momentum from 2015 must be sustained. Companies offering these solutions must read the tea leaves left behind from the major deals of the year and continue to enable the insight-to-action loop for advisers and students through decision-support tools like predictive analytics and intervention recommendation engines. For institutions, turning the corner to make use of predictive analytics means having to understand exactly what they need from solution providers, having a champion on campus to drive change, allocating resources for both the product and training, and making advising cross-functional. Together these steps are central to moving from collecting data to using data and giving students the support they need to succeed in and beyond college.

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