Eleven public universities join alliance to help low-income students graduate

The idea behind the alliance is to identify successful pilot programs for increasing graduation rates, share them in ways they can be applied on other campuses, and take successful models to scale.

Eleven major public universities are coming together to share ideas and scale solutions in an effort to get more low-income students graduating from college on time.

It’s a problem that has gotten a fair bit of attention in recent years: Even as college completion rates have risen for more affluent students, they’ve remained persistently low for students from low-income families and first-generation students.

By some measures, upper-income students are seven times more likely than low-income students to complete a college degree – a statistic that education leaders say is a problem both for social justice and national economic reasons.

“Where colleges were once seen as vehicles of social mobility, they’re now actually creating, in some sense, a social barrier between the haves and have-nots,” says Mark Becker, president of Georgia State University, one of the 11 research institutions that announced Tuesday they’re collaborating with the University Innovation Alliance (UIA) to tackle the issue.

Georgia State, like the other 10 members of the UIA, has seem some success in recent years through pilot programs to help increase graduation rates for its low-income students. The idea behind the alliance is to take those successful programs, share them in ways they can be applied on other campuses, incubate them, and take successful models to scale.

There have been a number of small pilots at different schools that are promising, says Daniel Greenstein, director of postsecondary education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is helping to fund the initiative. With the alliance, the challenge is both to expand and scale those initiatives and figure out how to spread them to other institutions.

“We’ve got to get the things that are working out of the sandbox,” Mr. Greenstein says. “And they’re taking a really realistic approach – trying to see ‘how does this work at my institution.’ There’s no one-size-fits-all here.”

At Georgia State and several other alliance members, the most promising work has been with what’s known as predictive analytics, a data analysis tool that can help identify when students are at risk of failing and what supports they need to keep them on path.

A student on a nursing track who gets a C in her first lab science course, for instance, has very little chance of completing the competitive program, says Dr. Becker. But in the past, that student might have continued for several more years without realizing it. Now, the poor grade would trigger a conversation in the first semester with an adviser who can let the student know the challenge, and work with her to either figure out alternatives to nursing that are a better fit or identify a strategy to succeed.

“Our approach is high tech, high touch,” Becker says. “We use the tool to monitor the data we have coming in all the time for students to provide us feedback about when somebody needs to talk to the student.... It tries to pinpoint when individual students are starting to veer off the road, and you want to do corrective action before they crash in the ditch.”

Using such tools, Georgia State has seen increased retention rates for low-income students of 4 or 5 percent a year for several years now, says Becker, and they’re hoping to start using it for students at financial risk as well, identifying students who might need help early and offering support on how to manage their aid and finances.

But some other schools that have the same analytic software as Georgia State haven’t had the same success, Becker notes. He hopes the alliance and collaboration will help schools start to figure out what the crucial elements are that can make this work, and he's also looking forward to learning from successes at schools like the University of Texas in Austin, Ohio State University, and Michigan State University, other alliance members.

At Michigan State, meanwhile, provost June Youatt says she’s eager to learn more about predictive analytics from schools like Georgia State, as well as share the initiatives that Michigan State has tried that seem to be working.

“We have a dozen things we’re trying now. There are other people who have figured out things we don’t know,” says Dr. Youatt. “One of the great advantages [of the alliance] is the willingness of all 11 schools to share all that they know.”

Some schools, Greenstein says, have had success with adaptive learning techniques, which can help give a more personalized learning experience to students at enormous institutions. Other work might center on how curriculum can be structured differently.

At Michigan State, the school has redesigned its infrastructure to help keep students from falling through the cracks. A couple of years ago, the school began grouping its residence halls, where all first-year students live, into “neighborhoods.” Each neighborhood was designed to be a self-contained community, where students could eat, study, exercise, socialize, and get tutoring, health support, financial aid advice, and any other necessary services.

The school also worked to break down the divisions between academic affairs, student affairs, and residential affairs, instead emphasizing that all personnel need to be working to ensure students’ academic success.

“That’s been a huge cultural shift, and of all the things we’ve done, it might be the most significant,” Youatt says.

While Michigan State’s programs are still young, at the end of the first semester last year there were 20 percent fewer low-income students on academic probation compared with the year before, and 22 percent more were likely to return for a second year.

“These are early findings, and it’s not enough to raise the flag yet, but we feel directionally we’re going down the path we need to go,” says Youatt.

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