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Big data on campus

Clint Boulton | Oct. 18, 2016
Colleges and universities are sifting through reams of data in search of ways to bolster graduation rates.

But Forecast also uncovers less-obvious insights, including the finding that those who take classes with friends or make friends in their classes tend to earn higher grades.

"What we are trying to do with the tool is to show students data and how it relates to their success on campus so they can make better-informed decisions," Drake says.

Over the course of a semester, the software will parse the copious amounts of data students generate by registering for courses in the school's financial system and accessing coursework and completing assignments in the learning management system. It also keeps a record of how often students log on to the campus Wi-Fi network or swipe their ID badges to enter dining halls. It will make inferences about success by analyzing whether students are spending time with their peers and faculty members.

Forecast will use that data to generate new modules and graphs for students. "We will push data back in graphic form to show students the general relationship" between their behaviors and their results, Drake says. When viewed in aggregate, the various pieces of data paint a picture of student engagement, which can be a harbinger of success, Drake says.

A self-inflicted wound

The country's mediocre graduation rate is a self-inflicted wound. For decades, schools measured success by their enrollment numbers and rarely focused on making sure students graduated, says Morgan. Rather, the emphasis was on attrition and academic success was a matter of survival of the fittest. Schools were bent on weeding out the weak. Many university presidents would welcome new students with some variation of, "Look to your left, look to your right. One of you won't be here next year."

That attitude is a nonstarter in today's higher education market. Dropouts count as lost revenue for schools, and the ex-students find themselves degreeless and in debt. High dropout rates are especially painful for institutions whose state funding is based partially on performance, which takes retention and graduation rates into account, according to Morgan.

Indiana is one of the 30 or so states that have performance-based funding models, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Therefore, the state funding Purdue receives is determined in part by its overall graduation rate, its on-time (four-year) graduation rate, the number of degrees it awards, the number of degrees it awards in high-demand majors and its transfer metrics. In the last two-year budget cycle, 6.5 percent of Purdue's base allocation was based on performance, Drake says.

The upshot of all this is that if Forecast is successful at getting students more engaged in their schoolwork, it could bolster the school's funding prospects.

Success algorithm

 

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