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Aarti Dhupelia

When Aarti Dhupelia looked at the numbers in 2014, she was not pleased. Just 14 percent of Chicago high school freshmen went on to earn bachelors’ degrees. That number has since crept up to 18 percent, “but we can all agree that is not good enough,” she said.

As vice president of strategic initiatives at Chicago-based National Louis University, Dhupelia is working to improve the situation, leveraging technology to boost college enrollment, retention and completion in underserved communities.

Her initiative starts by making college affordable with a $10,000-a-year bachelor’s program. State and federal aid makes the program free for many students. Blended learning creates flexibility. Students and faculty meet face to face two full days a week, with the balance of the work completed online. The entry bar is low: just a 2.0 GPA with no SAT scores required.

“The technology is a critical piece of our model,” Dhupelia said. Most students arrive less than college-ready, and adaptive courseware helps to deliver the level of personalization needed to bring them up to speed. “That means that when students struggle with a particular piece of content, the software redirects them,” she said. “If they get a quiz question wrong, it takes them back to review that part of the module.”

The software likewise enables teachers to track student progress and respond to emerging needs. “They can see how much time students spend online, how many quiz questions they have attempted. If everyone understood modules one and two but struggled on module three, they can see that and plan for that in their lessons,” she said.

Technology also helps keep expenses down. Using online materials in lieu of conventional textbooks keeps the cost per student to around $45 per course.

Finally, the project relies heavily on data analytics. “We look at attendance and assignment grades weekly at the student level,” Dhupelia said. “We look at data around student behavior, around social and emotional issues. We have spreadsheets to track those things every single week for every single student. The data really is the secret sauce.” — Adam Stone

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