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Colleges have always collected reams of data about students. The admissions office knows where students come from, their high school grades, and their standardized test scores. The financial-aid office knows how students are paying for school and how much money their parents make. The registrar's office knows what courses students are taking and what grades they're earning. 

Now a growing number of institutions are analyzing all that data to address the problem of lagging graduation rates for low-income and nonwhite students by trying to identify those students most at risk of dropping out. Some schools are even using algorithms that can predict whether a student will pass a certain course, in the same way that Netflix uses algorithms to predict what movies customers will want to watch.

Data analytics promise to give institutions better information about their own programs and help advisers reach struggling students. But some tools also have the potential to cross ethical and privacy lines. This month, Next America will take a closer look at the benefits and costs of data collection and analysis on college campuses.

Colleges are under intense pressure to raise degree-completion rates. Thirty states now fund public colleges and universities—at least partly—based on criteria such as the number of students who graduate and the number of degrees awarded, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures

Nationally, graduation rates are low. About 59 percent of full-time students, after starting college for the first time, complete a bachelor's degree within six years, according to federal statistics.

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For associate degrees, the completion rate is a dismal 31 percent. African-American, Hispanic, and low-income students are less likely to earn any kind of credential than white, Asian, and affluent students.

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Colleges are starting to dig into academic, financial, and demographic data to identify students who may need extra support. Early-alert systems can ping advisers when a student starts to struggle, and degree-mapping tools recommend courses or majors by comparing a given student's grades to grades earned by similar students. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded $1.9 million in grants to help colleges purchase and implement advising technology.

A focus on data has helped many institutions raise their graduation rates. Georgia State University, for example, has raised its graduation rate by 22 percentage points over the last decade, thanks in part to data analysis and predictive analytics software.

Success stories like this usually come with a caveat: The technology has to be used wisely. "The real piece becomes having professional development that teaches advisers and administrators how the technology is used," says Charlie Nutt, executive director of the National Academic Advising Association. Institutions that experience the biggest impact don't just adopt a new advising tool, he says. They take the time to restructure their entire advising program.

That's what Georgia State did. As well as investing in new technology, the university hired new advisers, redesigned courses with high failure rates, and invested in student supports like peer tutoring. "What we were doing in the past wasn't working," says Timothy Renick, vice president for enrollment services and student success at Georgia State. 

Next America's Education coverage is made possible in part by a grant from the New Venture Fund.

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.

This article is part of our Next America: Higher Education project, which is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation.

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