New tools for college success


Today is the second White House College Opportunity Day of Action in Washington DC. President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have spearheaded this effort to increase the participation levels of disadvantaged students in post-secondary education. Several hundred presidents of universities around the country have come together in Washington to share best practices in encouraging college participation and college success for all Americans, including low income and educationally disadvantaged young people. The disparity in college attendance rates between the top and bottom quartiles of family income is shocking, even when we control for SAT/ACT performance. (Various estimates were offered today, including an estimate of more than 75% attendance in the top quartile versus less than 10% for the bottom quartile.)

Central themes for the day include several important ideas: using big data sets of disaggregated information on student performance to refine curriculum and pedagogy, using new technologies in support of more effective teaching and learning, and controlling the cost of higher education. Participants have emphasized a crucial point: economically and socially disadvantaged students are not provided the support and advising in their early years that are necessary to help them feel that college is a feasible path for them. And the challenge of learning about the college application process and the financial aid process is a high hurdle for disadvantaged first-generation students and families. Measuring academic success and improving successful completion are critical issues facing every university. And finding ways of changing the attitudes of disadvantaged students and families towards the feasibility of college is urgently needed.

There is some very facile talk about the connection between the last two topics — technology and cost. Sebastian Thrun, CEO of Udacity, was particularly outspoken on this topic. But it is important to remember that a quality education costs money to support, it requires committed faculty members who develop meaningful relations with their students, it requires effective support services, and we are right to be suspicious of claims to dramatically reduce those costs. Learning is more complex than simply being exposed to great online graphically rich course materials and video lectures. Of course we should be searching for innovations that work to improve learning and control costs, and many examples were presented today. But hoping for a magic pill, whether Udacity, Khan Academy, or Coursera, that leads to great college-level learning and costs almost nothing is chimerical. The idea of a $10,000 bachelor’s degree is such a chimera, beloved in some state houses but unattainable at an acceptable level of quality of outcome for the graduates.

More promising is the strategy of using realtime student learning data to finetune and focus the learning process to achieve greater success outcomes for students. Can a calculus teacher or an entry-level chemistry professor use realtime data during the semester to identify individual students and topics that require greater attention? Can entry-level courses in psychology, statistics, or biology be redesigned using this kind of data to improve the flow of topics and pedagogy to address sticking points? Can this kind of data provide some guides to designing better uses of new technologies in the university learning process?

There are some good examples of these kinds of uses of big data within universities. Here are some examples supporting student advising (link) and student success (link). And here is a review of recent thinking on the use of big data in several sectors including universities (link). We might call this “student success 2.0,” and every university is well advised to find ways of using these tools to improve retention and student success.

A particularly difficult challenge for universities is how to handle incoming students who are under-prepared for college-level math courses. It would be fantastic if there were proven bridge programs that succeed in bringing students from where they are when they leave high school to where they need to be in order to succeed in STEM fields in college. Are there good examples of such programs that effectively use new technology, great teachers, and big data to support real student progress?

One thing is clear: there is no magic bullet that ensures that the student with a weak grasp of algebra is instantly ready for Calculus I. But are there cutting-edge examples of bridge curricula that take students barely at a ninth-grade level of math skills to an ability to perform adequately in an entry-level college math course? Are there examples in use that make good use of technology and realtime data to customize the educational experience to support this degree of academic progress?

The challenge of increasing college attendance and completion for disadvantaged students is one of the most important social issues we face. As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan put the point this morning, the disaffection of disadvantaged young people in our country is at a crisis level. We must find ways of providing real pathways towards good jobs and middle class lives for the least advantaged young people in our society, and improving college access and improving attendance and completion are crucial steps towards that end.


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