Did you know that by the fourth week of a freshman's first semester at the University of Arizona, it's possible to predict the likelihood that student will return as a sophomore and eventually graduate? At a time when many freshmen are still getting their bearings, the UA community is already reaching out to help students succeed.
A campuswide collaboration to increase student success, driven by in-depth data analysis, led to a significant increase in retention rates at the UA, where the 2017-2018 one-year retention rate exceeded the 83 percent goal set by the Arizona Board of Regents. Strong retention rates indicate that greater numbers of students who enter the UA stay and eventually graduate.
"If a student chooses the UA, they should know that we are committed to their graduation," said Melissa Vito, senior vice president for Student Affairs, Enrollment Management and Strategic Initiatives. "These retention numbers are testament to an institutional commitment to their success and our incredible support staff."
Retention rates rose for both Arizona residents and out-of-state students, while international students are returning at a higher rate than ever before. At 86.5 percent, the one-year retention rate for residents is the UA's highest ever, while non-resident retention jumped 2 percentage points over the previous year.
"International retention is at almost 89 percent, which is our strongest ever," said Vincent Del Casino, vice president of Academic Initiatives and Student Success. "Some of the gaps that we've historically seen in some populations have closed, as well. We're going to continue to set ambitious goals for next year with an eye toward exceeding our ABOR-established targets again next year."
Many of those goals expand on the increases in student support services and financial aid implemented last year. The mission to increase student success was developed based on the careful analysis of a wide range of student data, which, when analyzed effectively, can reveal patterns and trends while providing for ongoing discovery and research.
Reducing the Guesswork
"Bringing this wide range of data together in new ways produces a more dynamic way of learning about students so we don't have to do things based on what we think is going to happen," Vito said.
The UA's data warehouse is maintained in the Office of University Analytics and Institutional Research, or UAIR, where Angela Baldasare is the assistant provost for institutional research. She and a team of analysts, data scientists and developers capture, store and analyze data for the UA. In recent years, their focus has been on the early indicators that a student might not return.
"For years, we've been providing support through data related to enrollment, and particularly this year, we've intensified our focus on student success," Baldasare said. "In addition to data we provide from UAIR, we've been leveraging some advanced analytics from Civitas Learning, a higher-education data science company, to help inform the work that we're doing so that we do more targeted, personalized outreach and support to the students."
Additional findings within student data have uncovered new risk factors for UA administrators to watch. While some risk factors are obvious, others, such as getting a C in English 101, are not. A grade of C, while passing, may indicate that a student has not mastered the writing skills needed to successfully complete upper-level coursework as a junior and senior.
"A year ago at this time, we analyzed some data about students with a C in English who were actually at risk of not persisting," Vito said. "This semester, with support from the provost and working with the English department, we have lowered the course size for all of our all first-year writing courses and applied those findings directly to the classroom experience."
One of the students who has benefited from the UA's focus on student success is junior Daryan Singer. During her time at the UA, Singer has utilized tutors and advisers at the UA's Think Tank.
"Think Tank has helped me through so much, especially with those challenging courses like chemistry. I used it a lot for math my freshman and sophomore years, and I've used the writing resource center," said Singer, who is exploring future career options in medical research, clinical psychology and neuroscience. "I went to Think Tank for the advising portion of it, too, not just the tutoring. There was another program where I met one-on-one with a peer adviser for a few weeks."
It is easy to see how increasing student academic success relates to greater retention rates, as students are better prepared to advance to the next semester or year. But the data also pointed to another risk factor: money.
"In the financial aid world, we found some early indicators," Baldasare said. "There were clear tipping points between the amount of unmet need, which is any cost of attendance that is not covered by the financial aid package that we offer. There was a dramatically different rate of retention for students who had higher thresholds of unmet need."
Aid Programs Provide a Lift
New financial aid programs, such as the eight-semester Silver and Sage Award, contributed to a quick three-point rise in retention from fall 2016 to spring 2017. For students such as Singer, receiving the Silver and Sage Award has made all the difference.
"I come from traditional Navajo household. My mom graduated from here and she walked when I was still in her stomach. It was a path that was already kind of set," Singer said, adding that shortly after becoming a Wildcat, financial troubles threatened to derail her dreams. "I didn't know how I was going to pay for my next semester. I had a very large balance due and I couldn't apply for any of my courses. I was scared."
The news that she would receive a Silver and Sage Award was liberating.
"We were at dinner and my phone blinked. I read the message and didn't believe it," said Singer, who eventually met with Vito in person to express her gratitude. "I gave the phone to my mom and she read through it and just kind of screamed. It was an automatic relief. I think my mom actually started crying. You could tell she was just light after that. That burden was lifted."
With retention again on the rise at the UA, Vito, Del Casino and Baldasare are optimistic about the future.
"We've had more data than we have ever had before in order to inform our efforts," Baldasare said. "The data provide signals that tell us how to focus our attention and allow us to target our resources so that we can learn more about the individual stories of students who are having trouble. We are much better able to personalize outreach and interventions."
"Last year, we used our data analytics to figure out who was at greater risk and we created lists that went to academic colleges to start outreach," Del Casino said. "We'll do that again this year. We got to an all-time high in retention, now we want to keep them all to their third year. We're focusing on second-year success, and we're going to really try to push that needle. We've done all this hard work, we've got to keep it going."