Studies and boots-on-the-ground experience have shown that college students are likely to succeed — and graduate — if they can just make it to their second year.
Knowing the precarious nature of the first-year experience, Utah Valley University is now strategically intervening in the academic lives of first-year students. The goal is to increase completion rates.
Jason Terry, program manager for completion initiatives in the Student Success and Retention Office, said, “Utah graduation rates aren’t the best, and it’s a huge effort for the state schools to change that. In order to combat that, we’ve looked to predictive analytics to be a little bit more assertive when it comes to helping our students. Nationally, educators call this intrusive advising — no longer do we wait for students to come to us, but we go to them with what we call ‘just-in-time’ initiatives.”
Two of the major thrusts in this effort are the adoption of a monitoring program called CIVITAS and a newly-funded and still-under-construction advising center in the Losee Center.
The First-Year Advising Center is being utilized this semester for the first time. It became a major initiative when it was shown that UVU’s student retention rate is 64% after that critical first year, Terry said.
The majority of students who drop out do so between the first and second year, he said, and UVU studies and national data show “if we can get our students to the second year, their likelihood of persisting to graduation drastically improves.”
Terry describes CIVITAS as “harnessing the power of big data; where we have many different variables going in, and it will produce a score for each student based on how likely they are to persist. The beauty of that is it allows the advisers to be more proactive.”
The advising center and interventions taken by advisers there, he said, teach new students how to “navigate the college world, as much as anything.”
He said advisers at UVU have found they often spend much of their time helping students who “already know how to play the game — they were good high school students, their parents went to college, they understand the value of advisers and writing labs and tutoring. Those students are likely already on the road to success.”
“But we are shifting it so the advisers can get in touch with those students who are most vulnerable, and, with these new predictive analytics, we can do that. Teaching a student how to be a college student is important, especially for first-generation students and those from minoritized backgrounds,” Terry said.
Terry explained that when a first-year student receives a poor grade on an assignment, CIVITAS can trigger an intervention in which the adviser is alerted. The system can then send an automated email, or an email can be written immediately by the adviser, to provide support, offer to meet or to share resources, to get the student where he or she needs to be.
“Students will be getting just-in-time help,” Terry said. “Too many times we were telling information at the wrong times, it got ignored, or students felt like it was not relevant, but when it is perfectly timed, it becomes powerful.”
CIVITAS can even track information like how often a student might use the Student Wellness Center and how this out-of-class activity, along with others, is influencing their academic success.
All advisers have the new CIVITAS tool and are being trained on its use, Terry said. There is an institutional expectation they will use it as soon as possible.
“Advisers know this is not just a shiny new toy,” he said. “And while the adviser’s personal intuition is worthwhile, so is hard data.”
Advising becomes a numbers problem at UVU, Terry noted, with a student body of 40,000 and 20,000 on campus on any given day.
“Our student-to-adviser ratio is way too high to meet with every student every semester. We need to devise ways to be more strategic,” Terry said. “Any college student is fighting a battle, but ours are fighting a battle with multiple fronts such as work obligations, family responsibilities, and inexperience navigating the collegiate world. These new initiatives address those particular problems to help them to persist to graduation. That’s the goal.”