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Targeted Interventions Show Promise to Help Students Succeed

Several large universities are tackling big problems that make it difficult for at-risk students to graduate.

by Tanya Roscorla / November 19, 2015
Some of the student success work at the University of Akron is being outsourced to a third-party company. Kit from Pittsburgh, USA via Wikimedia Commons CC by 2.0
Portland and Georgia state universities are putting their student success plans into action this year. 
As part of a yearlong Transformational Planning Grant that ended in June, these two universities along with five other large urban institutions have been sharing ideas and collaborating on ways to increase college access, improve student success rates and find greater efficiencies.
"We have been both inspired and encouraged and supported by this group of collegial institutions and are quite excited about the work we have done this last year," said Sukhwant Jhaj, vice provost for academic innovation and student success at Portland State University. 
Portland State has been working on four-year degree pathways to success for community college students, degree completion initiatives and flexible online degree pathways for adult learners, all of which support the university's presidential reTHINK PSU initiative.
Both Portland and Georgia State are trying to find ways to help students graduate faster with fewer wasted credits. Students may accumulate more credits than they need to graduate by taking classes that don't count toward their major. At Portland State, a small working group of professors analyzed the transcripts of 600 students and is providing recommendations for how to cut down on excess credit taking. 
Georgia State is tackling this problem by piloting an app that gives students real-time alerts when they sign up for classes that don't count toward their degree or that they're not prepared to succeed in. The app also gives students nudges about upcoming course assignments, midterms and study groups in an effort to help them academically. The challenge that the university faces is how to develop a technology that delivers the right message to the right student at the right time.
In addition to the app, Georgia State's GPS Advising system uses predictive analytics to identify students who are at risk of falling off the graduation path so advisers can proactively intervene to get them back on track. Over a 12-month time frame, the alerts in the GPS Advising system triggered 43,000 one-on-one interventions between staff and students. As a result, students are enrolling in more credit hours, passing a higher percentage of courses and graduating sooner because they're accumulating fewer wasted credit hours.
Georgia State also is using predictive analytics to identify students who are at risk financially based on factors including their on-campus housing decisions or how late they turn in their FAFSA form. Smartphone and tablet apps alert students when they're making a choice that could hurt their chances of staying in school, and students identified as at-risk receive priority access to meet with a financial counselor and attend financial literacy training. While the university can't make financial decisions for students, it can help them understand how choosing a four-person dorm room over a one-person room may affect their ability to stay in school long enough to graduate. 

Essentially grants like this planning one help universities give students an equal chance to succeed. "Higher education has to behave differently given the type of students we enroll and who often don't succeed in graduating," said Tim Renick, vice provost and vice president for enrollment management and student success at Georgia State University. 

The university is also including these students in discussions about how to better serve them. Portland State leaders and students worked together to design three service concepts that will become reality in the next few years: creating degree maps that students can personalize; integrating services online in a one-stop, mobile-friendly portal; and developing flexible academic programs for adult learners. When students were in the room with campus leaders, they shared stories about not being able to find information in one place and juggling classes. And that helped leaders realize that they needed to make changes that they had talked about for years, but hadn't acted on. "All processes that can be online ought to be online," Jhaj said.
The provost's office and the CIO's office have a good working relationship, so they plan to tackle these large projects and problems together.
As for Georgia State, it's planning to open a financial counseling center to support its advising work in that area, and is developing literacy training and financial resources to help students who fall off the graduation path. University leaders are also talking with vendors about developing an adaptive degree program map that will adjust whenever students pass, fail or drop out of a course. And the university is planning more aggressive analytics to predict the number of courses and seats needed for the next semester so students won't be frustrated by a lack of availability. 
"Each time we make an advance in the student success area, it allows us to see some opportunities that weren't previously visible," Renick said.   

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