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Matthew J. Belanger

Millyard Creative, Southern New Hampshire University

The first year of college isn’t always a fun time of exploration. For many students, it’s incredibly overwhelming, expensive and time consuming — causing nearly half of students to drop out. That’s why Matthew J. Belanger is creating tools and technology to improve first-year student success at Southern New Hampshire University’s College of Online and Continuing Education.

Belanger leads teams in efforts to integrate data and technology tools so they can understand the biggest challenges online students face in their first year. “Part of it is knowing who your student audience is,” he said. “We primarily serve adult learners, and the vast majority are working parents. Many have been to two or three institutions before.”

With that in mind, Belanger developed assessments during enrollment to identify challenges like the kind of support students have at home and their level of time management skills. Advisers and faculty then use that data to determine the best ways to help students be successful throughout the first year.

Belanger has also launched an academic support center that serves approximately 60,000 students per year, and has reconceptualized the general education curriculum to focus more on adult learners. He also serves on the first-year experience steering committee where he examines predictive analytics opportunities, readiness assessments and other data-related opportunities to give faculty and advisers insightful data so they can boost student outcomes.

The data-driven projects have clearly paid off, increasing early student success in certain high-risk courses by 20 percent and overall first-year success by 7 percent under his leadership. “You get to see students who are graduating and you’re hearing their stories about how you’re changing their lives,” Belanger said. “It’s been very rewarding to see how these projects have increased their academic success.” — Julia McCandless

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