University of Washington Tacoma: How We Stopped Over Analyzing and Started Acting


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Like the stories we tell around campfires, the stories we tell about our students have become mythic, exaggerated, and many are no longer true. Often, our students become metaphors for students from 10 years ago — or in the case of The University of Washington, 125 years ago.

The good news, although stories matter, is that we no longer have to rely on old campfire tales to create meaning. We have data to help us tell new stories – real-time stories about today’s students – that are just as captivating, but also compelling in the way they fuel action.

The #1 initiative on the new Strategic Plan at UW-Tacoma is student success, and the most important measure of success for that plan is to increase retention rates and timely graduation. In order to achieve this, we are using Illume Students to identify where the often hidden pockets of students are who most need support, and to identify the powerful predictors that would lead us to take action to help these students on their path to graduation.

Historically, our challenge around taking action was our reliance on siloed campus data for reporting, not discovering what we didn’t know. We have always been very good at counting our students and describing them — imagine 10-15 pages of Institutional Research tables produced every 6 months. These reports would go on our IR website for anyone who wanted to read them. but seldom did action ever come from our summaries.

Now, we’ve gone from reporting data in 6 months to discovering insights in 6 minutes with Illume Students. In the case of a longitudinal look at  who was leaving our institution, we discovered that 45 percent of our non-persisters have 3.0 GPA or higher and 76 percent have 2.0 GPA or higher. This is consistent with Civitas Learning’s Community Insights revealing that 98 percent of institutions are losing more student with GPAs above 2.0 than below. For the most part, student struggles are not academics.

This finding brought up the issue of financial aid and the large percentage of students who are leaving with scholarships on the table. Additional insights showed us that self-pay students are our most vulnerable population. These are students who are digging into their own pockets, without loans or grants, and make the unfortunate decision of leaving the institution. Why? What if we could get them just a bit more money to enable them to stay on track?

“Our approach to taking action is now different from what it has been historically. We are not waiting around to do complicated data crunching, nor are we obsessing over our top predictors. We are using data as a signal for quick opportunities to connect with our students and meet them where they are. For example, we are using text messaging to reach out to our vulnerable lower division students, and using Inspire to send personalized email reminders to keep a range of predictor populations on track, using advice from the Civitas community campaign resources and templates.

What if we could also help the high achievement/low persisters who need just a bit more money per credit hour to move to the other side of the persistence tipping point? With this new knowledge about financial struggles, we are taking steps to not only explore new resources for financial aid students, but to direct resources, information and support toward self-pay students.

UW Tacoma recognizes the value of real-time analytics in supporting our students and “the obligation of knowing.” Telling the current stories of our diverse student body is replacing campfire tales across the campus. Moving forward, we’ll see even more real-time stories created as we build a federated, consensus-built data culture where stakeholders across the institution explore data, find insights, and take action based on what is found.

Dr. Colleen Carmean

Dr. Carmean serves as the University of Washington Tacoma's strategist for emerging technologies. Her work focuses on shared knowledge architectures and enhancing the user experience (UX). She teaches applied computing. Current research includes the value of analytics in improving learner decisions and persistence. She is the 2002 EDUCAUSE NLII Fellow, a 2004 Frye Fellow, a 2006-2008 Arizona Wakonse Teaching Fellow, and a 2012 UWT Writing Fellow.

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