Big data can solve big problems at colleges — White House officials

A blog post released Thursday explains how colleges and universities can track student performance.

Big data can take students higher.

A new report and White House blog post published Wednesday details how big data can help students in college and other higher education institutions, and how the federal government is trying to do its part to help in the effort.

The Obama administration created a College Scorecard, which provides prospective students information about college performance, student loans and debt, career projections, and even data on the earnings of college alumni. The measurement tool was recently updated.

The blog post — written by U.S. CTO Megan Smith and Chief Data Scientist DJ Patil from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Cecilia Muñoz of the White House Domestic Policy Council — encourages colleges and universities to use the data on students they already have to track performance, personalize learning and perform remediation.


“The opportunity for innovation lies in how schools use
that existing data to create a tailored learning experience,” they wrote. “Big data techniques are already
helping students learn more effectively through tailored instruction, which can help overcome
continuing disparities in learning outcomes, and providing extra help for those more likely to
drop out or fail.”

They use Georgia State University as an example of a college effectively using big data to achieve tangible results — the school launched a Graduation and Progression Success Advising program in 2013 to keep its more than 32,000 students on track.

The tool tracks 800 risk factors, ranging from simple problems to deeply rooted ones, to intervene before the issue gets worse. There have been almost 100,000 such interventions with students since the program started.

Sometimes, they noted, something as simple as registering for the right courses can be fixed with this system to avoid issues that would make a student fall behind.

And, at other times, “the system uses predictive analytics to make sure that the student’s performance in a prerequisite course makes success likely at the next level.”


Georgia State has seen gains from the program, and has reduced time to obtain a degree by an average of half a semester per student, which has saved students more than $10 million in tuition and fees, according to the blog post.

While data can be used for good, it can also work against low-income or at-risk students in higher education admissions decisions.

“In making admissions decisions, institutions of higher education may use big data techniques to
try to predict the likelihood that an applicant will graduate before they ever set foot on
campus,” the officials wrote.

“Using these types of data practices, some students could face barriers to admission
because they are statistically less likely to graduate,” they continued. “Institutions could also deny students from
low-income families, or other students who face unique challenges in graduating, the financial
support that they deserve or need to afford college.”

Reach the reporter at and follow her on Twitter @clestch and @edscoop_news.

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