Case of the Mystery Scholarship: How Students Experience Georgia State’s Push to Use Big Data

Case of the Mystery Scholarship: How Students Experience Georgia State’s Push to Use Big Data
Timothy Renick, Georgia State U's vice provost and VP for enrollment management and student success

Tyler Mulvenna will be the first in his family to graduate from college when he walks across the commencement stage at Georgia State University later this month. And he’s aware that Big Data played a small role in helping him finish on time.

He’s one of the first students to go through the entire undergraduate experience at Georgia State since the university set up an unusual digital safety net four years ago. (The school calls it the “Student Success” initiative). The system relies on predictive analytics to look for warning signs—both academic and financial—that a student might be struggling. When possible trouble is detected, it triggers a mix of automated and human interventions: Students get emails asking them to meet with an academic advisor, or officials are alerted to consider whether they should offer instant grants to help students pay their bills when money is short. Much has been written about the program, but here’s what the system felt like from a student’s perspective.

For Mulvenna, who is 22, his first encounter with the system came during his sophomore year, when he got an “iCare alert” in his email inbox. The message, which arrived a couple of weeks before a deadline to drop classes, noted that he was in danger of failing one of his courses. “I was like, ‘Oh I didn’t even know,’” he remembers. “I replied to that email and asked what class it was. They said, ‘if you like, you can come in and speak about that.’”

He quickly made an appointment with an academic advisor and discovered the issue was in his microeconomics course, where he had trouble communicating with the professor, who has a thick accent. “I knew I didn’t do well on the first exam, but it was worse than I thought,” he says. His advisor suggested that he drop the course and take it again later, to avoid a low or failing grade. He did, and he says he’s happy he made that call. The first professor, he says “was great in theory, and probably a brilliant person, but he didn’t explain it as well as the second professor I had, who was actually a doctoral student.”

Mulvenna was living with his sister in an Atlanta suburb at the time, making a long trek to campus and back each day for classes and for a job at InterContinental Hotels Group. “I worked about 60 to 70 hour weeks over that summer so I could have enough money to live on campus and not have to commute,” he says. By summer’s end, though, he hadn’t quite reached his financial goal.

Then one day he logged onto the university’s payment system, and discovered that, mysteriously, his outstanding bill had been paid. “I had $1,100 in my account I needed to pay, and it went to zero,” he remembers. That made the difference so he could move, and suddenly he had a bit of spare time to spend with friends and on student activities in addition to his work and studies.

When he did some digging, he found out the $1,100 gift had been a Panther Retention Grant, another key part of the university’s new digital safety net. Mulvenna never applied for it (in fact he didn’t know much about it), but an email from the university explained that he would never have to pay back the forgiven tuition, as long as he completed a short online financial-literacy course, which he did.

Mulvenna said that it was only after talking to friends at other colleges that he realized that early alert services like iCare are not the norm. “They said, ‘I wish I would have had that.’”

His only suggestion to improve the system: Give students more of a heads-up about (and explanation of) the Panther Retention Grants.

It turns out the last-minute nature of the grants is by design, says Timothy Renick, the university’s vice provost and vice president for enrollment management and student success. In the past, about 1,000 students each semester were being dropped because they couldn’t afford to pay their tuition and fees. And many of them were seniors—close to completing their degree, but just not able to come up with the money to stay in school. In crunching the numbers, Renick says they found that some students who were being dropped didn’t even owe much—sometimes only a few hundred dollars.

So rather than kick out students who don’t pay, the university now considers giving them Panther Retention Grants. If their academic standing is solid, many get their outstanding balance forgiven. “Many of the grants are not put into the students’ account until a few hours before the student is to be dropped,” says Renick. “We want to do this nimbly, and we want to allow students who can come up with the funds to do so.” Georgia State gives out about 2,000 of these small grants each academic year, and last year 1,200 students who graduated had received one at some point.

And Renick says the iCare alerts are having an impact as well. “Since we'’e launched this platform, a little over four years ago, we now have 200,000 in-person interventions with students coming out of the predictive analytics platform,” he says. “We have lowered the average time to degree for all the bachelor’s students at Georgia State by half a semester. We’re graduating 1,700 more students than we were five years ago. And we’ve had a 30 percent increase in the number of degrees we’re conferring overall.”

Calculating Majors

Many students may never trigger an iCare alert or a last-minute grant. But just about everyone on the campus encounters Degree Works, a tool that students can use to calculate what course requirements they need to fulfill before they graduate. (There are now several competing products that colleges also use for the purpose.) These systems can let students quickly see what impact changing their major will have on how quickly they can graduate.

For Janay Riza, a 21-year-old junior at Georgia State, the system helped her when she decided to switch gears academically. “I was a marketing major at first, and then I was a health-informatics major,” she says. “Then I wanted to make my major more broad,” she adds, so she switched to Computer Information Systems.

These days a popular theme of those calling for reinventing higher education is to argue that students today just want to skip elective courses and do only what they need to prepare for a career. But Riza says that for her, the first two years of college were all about trying out different fields to decide what she wants to be when she grows up. “Once you get into the classes, you can figure out, wow this is not for me,” she says with a laugh.

Renick says that since Georgia State began using Degree Works, officials have changed how they hire advisors to better serve students interested in changing majors.

In the standard advising model, a student majoring in business might be assigned an advisor who teaches business. But if a student wants to switch out of business, that business-focused professor may not have the answers about the best options in other departments, says Renick.

The university now has six or seven “transition advisors,” who are trained “specifically to understand the curriculum broadly and understand how and where students can use existing courses most efficiently if they were to move from one major to another.”

“In the past we were letting students make these choices blindly, and I think that’s irresponsible” adds Renick. “We’re not telling a student who is a sociology major that they can’t become an art major in their senior year. But we are sure as heck gonna tell them, ‘If you make this change, you realize that it’s gonna take you three more years to meet all your requirements, and your eligibility for Pell will run out after two semesters.’”

Big data projects raise questions about whether student privacy is properly protected, and whether students understand what information colleges are tracking.

“When you’re doing something this big and powerful, there has to be a lot of transparency,” says David Parry, an associate professor of digital media and communication at Saint Joseph’s University. “Do they have students that are involved in these policies around data?” he asks. He says that too often, administrators assume that students aren’t concerned about privacy issues. “I talk to student all the time, and they totally care about this and they totally get it,” says Parry.

Renick says that students are able to opt out of Georgia State’s system, though few do so. And he says the university has long had all of this information about its students—it just never used to make use of it in this way.

And while the administrator says he takes data privacy seriously, he says another moral question is the responsibility colleges have to help students graduate. (Renick is also a professor of religious studies who teaches a course on religious ethics.)

“In some instances that's too easy an out to say ‘Oh we can’t do this, we can’t begin to go down this pathway of looking at data and being more proactive with students because it would be unethical.’ I think you can’t ask that question, you can’t make that statement unless you do a hard assessment of the ethics of the status quo. Which for too long has put students in this hugely disadvantaged position—especially for first-generation and low-income students.

For Parry, the concern is less about how Georgia State’s program works, but about the larger trend of colleges looking to big data.

“There is probably a good way to do this,” he says. “My concern about big data is that people treat it as the be all and end all.”

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