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Tristan Denley

Jake Giles Netter

Why do some college students excel in higher education while others struggle right from the start? More importantly, why do some students fail to complete their degree program, and what can be done to stop that kind of failed effort from happening in the first place? These are the kinds of questions that Tristan Denley has made it his mission to answer. “I feel it’s a tragedy when a student goes through a degree program and arrives at a point when they can’t complete it for a variety of reasons.”

Denley is vice chancellor of Academic Affairs at the Tennessee Board of Regents, a position he has held since 2013. But it’s the latest stop on a long, 20-year career in academics, a career that has its roots in his native England where his father was a school teacher. “Education has been in my blood all my life,” he remarked.

Denley’s focus on ways to improve college completion and students’ academic success has led him to technology and, specifically, data mining and predictive analytics. Denley wanted to find out the “unintended barriers” that put certain students at a disadvantage when they attend college and that could end up jeopardizing their academic career. “My focus is on removing those barriers,” he explained.

For example, some students find it difficult to make a choice when it comes to what degree program they should pursue. Just putting off that decision for a short while can increase the likelihood the student will not stay in college. To aid students, and the advisers who counsel them, Denley initiated a project called Degree Compass that’s driven by predictive analytics to help students make more informed choices about their education.

Degree Compass was inspired by Netflix, Amazon and Pandora as a way to successfully pair current students with the courses that best fit their talents and program of study for upcoming semesters. The model combines hundreds of thousands of past students’ grades with each particular student’s transcript to make individualized recommendations. Launched in 2011, Degree Compass is now used at several colleges in Tennessee and is available to other colleges as well.

Denley has also used predictive analytics to determine with a high degree of accuracy which students will pass or fail a class and has used the data to make structural changes to ensure that students can sustain their success in the classroom.

But using analytics in higher education isn’t a slam dunk just yet. “We’re at a pivotal moment when it comes to analytics in higher education,” said Denley. “The tools are producing useful information, but it’s not easy to get that information into the hands of the right people who need to make decisions.”

Despite the challenges, Denley remains inspired by his desire to make the higher education system work in a more cohesive way. “Many higher ed students will attend several institutions as part of their academic career. I like to find ways to make that sequence of education really work, so that many more students can be much more successful.” —Tod Newcombe