Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success

By Jeffrey J. Selingo

Over the last decade, Oregon State University has been on a growth spurt, expanding by more than 8,800 undergraduates, a 50 percent increase in enrollment from 2005. But even as the student body swelled, two key metrics of student success that university officials had hoped would grow in tandem—retention and graduation rates— remained stuck in place. So when the university introduced the third phase of its strategic plan in 2014, Oregon State’s president, Ed Ray, pledged that the university would put in place a series of student-success programs to improve retention and get more students across the finish line.

For some faculty members on the Corvallis campus the answer to achieving student success was simple: the university needed to serve fewer students. Their idea was that Oregon State should follow the playbook of elite universities by becoming more selective and rejecting more students. But Ray believed that the changing demographics of Oregon and the nation demanded that Oregon State focus more deliberately on admitting and graduating a student body that was racially, ethnically, and economically representative of the community. Simply rejecting more students because they posed a higher risk of dropping out wouldn’t accomplish that goal.

The university had already increased access for traditionally underrepresented students: The number of Hispanic students had quadrupled since 2005; the number of low-income Pell Grant eligible students had almost doubled. Now the challenge was creating structured pathways to graduation and ensuring the university and its policies weren’t creating unnecessary roadblocks. Ray told the faculty that the university needed to meet students where they were.

“To have a president of a Research I university come out and say that student success is a priority set the tone for changing the culture,” said Susana Rivera-Mills. “It shifted the conversation from blaming the students to the institution taking some of the responsibility. It was a huge shift.”

And for Rivera-Mills, knowing that the message came from the president was particularly important. As vice provost and dean of undergraduate studies at the time, she was responsible for designing a blueprint for student success measures and putting new programs in place—all at a breakneck pace.

Over the last three years, Oregon State has embraced “predictive analytics,” which harnesses streams of data about how students fare in courses to generate insights on individual classes and reliable models for where students might run into trouble during their undergraduate careers. Much like the invisible algorithms that recommend music on Spotify and movies on Netflix, the data drawn from tens of thousands of grades combined with student attributes can help a student who doesn’t do well in statistics, for instance, understand that finishing a degree in economics is unlikely.

Oregon State has used such data to guide academic advising and help students with much-needed financial aid at critical moments in their studies. It has also applied the data to identify and redesign some two dozen courses, ones that historically have predicted success at the university as well as those where students often hit obstacles and struggled with grades.

Rivera-Mills credited the University Innovation Alliance (UIA) for accelerating the pace of change at Oregon State. The university is a member of the alliance, a group of 11 public institutions created in 2014, which focuses on improving access for underrepresented and low-income students. One big benefit of the group is that its campuses share with their counterparts how they achieved success in certain areas and where they have failed. One of the members of the group is Georgia State University, which nearly a decade ago pioneered the use of predictive analytics and witnessed a significant upswing in student retention and graduation rates as a result.

“We were able to move faster than if we tried to do it on our own,” Rivera-Mills said. “It took Georgia State three years to do what we did in 18 months. We are moving at a speed that is not your normal speed in academia.”

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At Oregon State, replicating what Georgia State did wasn’t as easy as simply copying its systems and plugging in the grades of Oregon State students.

One of the benefits of American higher-education is that it’s not a system, but rather a diverse collection of institutions. This diversity is also a curse because as a result few colleges operate in the same manner, making it more difficult to duplicate elsewhere what has worked on one campus. Each campus has its own governance system, its own technology, its own academic structure, and most of all, its own culture. This distinctiveness revealed itself at Oregon State in its decentralized organization. Each of the university’s 11 colleges had been responsible for designing its own student success measures.

So Rivera-Mills and her team started their task by going college to college at the university to take an inventory of what they were already doing in the area of student success and what practices were working (they also visited other campuses and conducted extensive research, so that any new ideas were based on deep evidence). “I knew that unless the colleges owned the changes, I wasn’t going to succeed because no one reported to me,” Rivera-Mills said.

Timothy Renick, who as Georgia State’s vice provost and vice president for enrollment management advised Rivera-Mills during the process, described Oregon State as “more decentralized” than his own campus and that makes what his counterpart has accomplished that much more noteworthy. “Susana was clearly the driver of change,” Renick said. “With her personality and skill set, she was able to persuade people to get people on board.”

To illustrate how important someone like Rivera-Mills is to student success on a campus, Renick pointed out that several hundred colleges now use the predictive-analytics system employed by Georgia State and Oregon State which was designed by EAB, a higher-education research company. But only about half of the campuses that use the system have seen significant gains in their retention and graduation rates. “The fact that you have all these alerts coming at you through the system won’t make a bit of difference,” Renick said, “unless you have a person who has figured out what to do with those alerts.”

The first way Oregon State used those alerts was to redesign a set of courses through adaptive learning tools. Using the data, officials discovered a cluster of classes from General Psychology to Introduction to Macroeconomics to Differential Calculus that were stumbling blocks for students, with high instances of D’s, F’s, and withdrawals. The university worked with faculty members, showed them the data, and introduced technology tools to personalize learning for each student and serve up content keyed to what the student was ready to learn next.

“We had to overcome the myth among faculty that these tools were there to replace them,” Rivera-Mills said. “These are tools like a textbook. It’s not something that is going to solve the problem. It’s a tool that requires a tool kit. We learned to involve and engage the faculty early on, to let them own the process, and to create a space and time for them to be creative with redesigning the courses.”

At the same time, Oregon State mined the data on student performance to deploy proactive advising, which identifies undergraduates who need help the most but never seek it. Computer algorithms pinpoint students most at risk and trigger early alerts on which the university’s professional advisors can act. The data points are also used by the financial aid office to provide small emergency grants to students unable to cobble together the last few dollars they need to pay their tuition bill. The university found students close to graduation and with good grades were often dropped from courses for nonpayment of bills that often equaled only a few hundred dollars.

The use of predictive analytics has already paid off for Oregon State in multiple ways. Of the 28 high-risk courses the university identified, for example, 19 have lowered their dropout rate by 10 percent or more after being redesigned. On the financial aid side, those students who received an emergency grant had a retention rate of 95 percent compared to 83 percent for the student body as a whole. The university has an overall goal to improve retention to 90 percent and bring the six-year graduation rate to 70 percent (it’s 64 percent now).

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To help reach that goal, Rivera-Mills was recently named vice provost for academic programs and learning innovation. The newly created position expands her portfolio to include enrollment management, financial aid, and online learning, and also clarifies roles, giving her more authority to hold schools responsible for student success. “You cannot be just a leader of ideas,” she said. “You have to be a leader who can operationalize them and make people accountable for results.”

The new job is part of a higher-education career for Rivera-Mills that has seen her take on challenges when opportunities opened up. She described herself as a “reluctant leader.” A sociolinguist by training, her scholarly research has focused on Latino communities, issues of identity, Spanish language and culture, and linguistic attitudes. “Being a professor was a dream job,” she said.

But after dabbling in administration for short stints for much of her academic career, in 2014 she applied to be vice provost and dean of undergraduate studies at Oregon State. “In order to really have a broader impact,” she said,” I knew that I had to step into a leadership role and go into administration where I would have access to systems that were directly influencing students.”

A native of El Salvador, she came to the United States when she was 12 and settled in California not knowing how to speak a word of English and was held back a year in school as a result. Her experiences as an immigrant and a first-generation college student who didn’t know how to navigate the higher-education infrastructure from financial aid to advising have shaped her academic life ever since.

“All these things,” she said, “really set me up well to be able to empathize with students who are trying to achieve the same things that I was trying to achieve—a college education—and facilitating the pathway for them.”

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