Colleges Use Analytics to Track Student Engagement, Performance

by   |   October 16, 2012 5:09 pm   |   2 Comments

In business, customers won’t buy a product or service unless it delivers a unique experience or competitive advantage. In the business of running a college, the ongoing health of the enterprise depends on being able to attract, retain and graduate students on time. And colleges today are under more pressure than ever.

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Faced with lackluster graduation rates—only 58.3 percent of all U.S. college students graduate, according to the National Center for Education Statistics—and cumulative student loan debt exceeding $1 trillion, colleges need some answers. That’s why many colleges are using analytics to track student engagement.

Based on data from crunching numbers over several years, colleges find that students who attend class, use the school’s learning management system, meet frequently with professors and are involved in extracurricular activities such as the, school newspaper, student government or campus  clubs are much more likely to graduate within six years.

Vincent Kellen, CIO, University of Kentucky

Vincent Kellen, CIO at University of Kentucky

“We’ve been following engagement for several years,” notes Vincent Kellen, CIO at the University of Kentucky. “The difference today is that we have much better tools,” he says, adding that the university uses SAP HANA to more effectively track student engagement.

Kentucky’s six-year graduation rate runs at about 60 percent right now. Kellen says the college aims to reach the 70 percent mark in the next few years. (To offer some perspective, Harvard’s completion rate is roughly 95 percent, but it is much more selective than a state school such as Kentucky, which serves a more diverse population. For-profit online colleges run well under 50 percent.)

Keeping Score at Kentucky
Kellen’s analytics plan doesn’t just track students. It calls for publicizing the results. Students will receive a “K-Score” at the end of the fall semester, ranking them on a scale of 1 to 100 based on how engaged they are on campus. The university has initiated a program called TallyCats (a play on the school’s Wildcats mascot), which issues students a smartcard and offers incentives for them to participate in school activities (and boost their K-Score). Students can swipe their smartcards when they attend school sporting events, guest lectures, and art expositions, for example, and receive prizes for frequent participation, Kellen says.

Lessons from the Ivory Tower

Takeaways for business people from analytics practitioners in universities:

  • Question your initial assumptions. Understand that analytics is a journey, that your initial assumptions or first reads may not be quite accurate. For example, until they delved deeper into the data, Sinclair Community College didn’t make the connection between student engagement and completion rates.
  • Identify motivated customers. Sinclair Community College found that students who complete three courses within a degree program in the first year are four times more likely to graduate. Businesses need goal-oriented employees.
  • Stay alert. Customers that go off-track in the first six months to a year need an intervention. Malcolm Brown of Educause says failing students must be identified and reached well within the first year. The same can be said of using analytics to track customers that suddenly stop buying, but haven’t communicated why.

The engagement score will be based on student participation in TallyCats, as well as how often they attend tutoring and advising sessions, interact with degree progress reports and use the learning management system. The university plans to promote the new engagement score via the student newspaper and e-mails, but Kellen says his best bet is to send a text message through the school’s mobile app.

“It’s one thing for the university to know how engaged students are,” he says. “But it’s quite another thing for students to know that.”

Much like an effective customer retention program in business, the goal of such efforts at colleges is to reach students before they start to fail.

“It’s really important for colleges to set up early warning systems,” says Malcolm Brown, director of the Educause Learning Initiative.

Educause is a trade group for IT managers at colleges and universities that conducts original research on the use of IT at colleges. “Colleges need to catch signs of a downslide right at the outset, the sooner the better,” Brown says.

Iterations Pay Off for Analysts at Community College
Karl Konsdorf says there’s no question that more engaged students fare better. Konsdorf, manager of research, analytics and reporting at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, says the two-year associate degree program has used analytics to solidify the link between student engagement and success. As in the business world, it took more than one analysis to reach the conclusion.

As Sinclair expanded its online education efforts, initial indicators from analyzing SAS data found that students with GPAs of 2.0 or better had higher completion rates. The college then changed its policy. Instead of allowing all students to sign up for online courses, Sinclair required that only students with 2.0 or better GPAs could take an online course.

But as administrators studied the data more closely, they later found that it was not grades but rather student engagement in the course early-on that made the difference. Students who were online for three sessions in the first week, and who sent an email to the course instructor or the dean of online learning had much greater success, Konsdorf says.

Most Likely to Succeed
Determining which students are likely to succeed is another way colleges are applying analytics. Western Governors University, a competency-based online program in which students proceed at their own pace, changed its admissions policy based on results from data analytics. In this case, past performance was a good indicator of future results.

Niel Nickolaisen, the college’s CIO, says after analyzing information   from its Oracle-based data warehouse, the college found that students who had taken at least 12 previous college credits had a much greater likelihood of graduating than those with fewer than 12 credit hours..

The analysis led WGU to require incoming students to have some college credits. And the school in recent years has seen graduation rates rise a little more than 1 percent annually, from roughly 35 percent to slightly more than 40 percent.

Nickolaisen says the college also used the data to redesign courses and make changes to its mentoring programs. “The important thing is that we analyze data to determine which levers we can pull to improve graduation rates,” he says.

Sinclair Community College also uses analytics to evaluate incoming students. Sinclair’s Konsdorf says that several years ago, the administration noticed that the yield rate – the percentage of students who apply and actually attend – was going down. The first impulse of college administrators was to think that the reason for the enrollment decrease was financial, that students couldn’t afford the tuition. (In 2012, tuition is $1,100 for local residents and $3,200 for out-of-state students.)

Through the use of SAS data modeling tools, the college found that the reason yield rates were down was that students scored poorly on the math placement test and decided to give up and not attend. In response, the college moved its resource center closer to the admissions center so incoming students could more easily take math refresher courses. The move had a dramatic impact – in the first year, yield rates went up 15 percent.

Expect more colleges to use analytics to identify why students succeed or fail and use the data to help more students graduate on time. At Western Governors, efforts are under way to track how much time students spend on a course, view a video, or how often they participate in the online learning communities, the goal of which is to create a profile of a successful student.

“What we want to do is tell the students if you want to learn this course this is what you need to know,” Nickolaisen says. “If you want to be successful, here’s the path.”

Steve Zurier is a freelance writer based in Maryland. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @szurier.

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