In Tennessee, tailored data helps students

When she was a college freshman, Bonnie Boggs had not yet chosen her major, but enrolled in biology because she enjoyed the subject in high school and thought she wanted to become a science teacher. Yet she did not perform well in the course, so her school website at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn. recommended courses in communications and marketing, and gave her high ratings for a career in these areas.

“I started asking around about what kind of jobs are available in those fields,” Boggs said. Today, she is a senior with a major in communications and a minor in marketing, and really enjoys her part-time job at a local online newspaper.

Several Tennessee schools are experimenting with Degree Compass, a course recommendation software, and are seeing positive results. Not unlike companies like Netflix or Pandora that recommend movies or music based on popularity and preference, Degree Compass uses grades, test scores and enrollment data to rank courses, suggest majors and help students progress through their programs.

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At Austin Peay, more than 40 percent of students are ‘non-traditional’ students (part-time, employed or beyond typical college age), more than 50 percent are Pell Grant recipients and one in five enter without a major. The school therefore “has many students who are unfamiliar with the subtleties of navigating their way through a degree program,” said Tristan Denley, creator of Degree Compass, vice chancellor for academic affairs at the Tennessee Board of Regents and former Austin Peay provost. He developed the program to help solve challenges in higher education, such as retention, degree completion and education gaps by demographic.

Since schools adopted Degree Compass in 2011 and 2012, retention and graduation rates have increased, with significant improvement among African American students. Graduation rates improved 7.7 percent at the University of Memphis and 8.2 percent at Austin Peay, compared with a 4.4 percent increase statewide. And among African American students, the jump was 7.2 percent at the University of Memphis and 9 percent at Austin Peay, compared with a 5.8 percent improvement statewide.

At these schools, Degree Compass was the only major new system that was implemented system-wide across the entire student population, creating a strong correlation between the program and improvements that followed, Denley said.

Through predictive analytics, Degree Compass analyzes student data to suggest a degree path and measure how well students are expected to perform in the coursework they need for their chosen degree.

Degree Compass is intended to enhance in-person academic advising, and “neither restricts nor prescribes [student] choices, but instead empowers choice by creating an information source with a larger than human viewpoint and supported by data from previous choice patterns,” Denley said.

To match students with courses that suit their strengths and academic goals, the program combines data on a student’s past grades with transcript information from hundreds of thousands of other students. And schools use it to design course scheduling and offer targeted support to at-risk students.

Developed in 2011, Degree Compass was expanded and scaled to three Tennessee schools with $1 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and Complete College America. School websites display customized information for students on recommended courses, where that course fits into the student’s major and class availability in upcoming semesters. Courses are rated by a five-star system.

As happened with Boggs, if a student’s grades are not supporting his or her progress toward a particular major, the system will suggest another field based on that student’s grades and grade patterns from other students. Boggs said that her sorority also uses the program to help members choose a major.

Students are encouraged to schedule a manageable course load based on their academic strengths and challenge areas. The program is not intended to lead students toward ‘easier’ classes, but rather to balance the overall course load while introducing subjects that otherwise might not appear on their radar.

“It predicted I might struggle more in my economics class, and helped me structure my schedule to succeed and get the best grades,” Boggs said.