Author:Carey, Kevin


The University of South Florida looks a lot like the surrounding city of Tampa Bay, which is to say that it looks like most of the American places that have filled up with people over the last 100 years: sunny and sprawling and composed of newish brick, glass, and concrete buildings between five and ten stories high. You may not have heard of USF, or at least not in a way that made a lasting impression, because it isn't a synecdoche for the allegedly meritocratic class system, nor the home of a championship football team. It is merely the kind of university where most young adults actually get a college education.

Like many of the public institutions that make up the backbone of the American higher education system, USF's future is uncertain. Four decades of tax-revolt politics and mismanaged finances have led state legislatures to slash public funding for higher learning, forcing public universities to raise tuition and compete on the open market against schools with comparative advantages. Community college degrees are cheap, short, and job focused. The most prestigious universities provide the stamp of selectivity. For-profit schools aggressively market convenient online programs. Small liberal arts colleges offer a personalized experience where everybody knows your name.

While USF is trying to compete in each of these arenas (the football team was 10-2 last year), the main point of being a sizable public university is to serve a large and diverse population of students. Not just the top 1 percent, but people who represent the whole population of Florida, including immigrants, first-generation students, low-income families, and people of color. Educating 51,000 students at three campuses spread across Tampa, Sarasota, and St. Petersburg can lead to the standard rap on big state schools, namely that students are anonymous, unnoticed, and disconnected--"just a number."

Which is why the most interesting thing about USF is how it is turning the whole idea of students as numbers on its head. Numbers, after all, can be analyzed. They can be acted upon and changed. The real tragedy of modern higher education is when students aren't even seen as numbers--when, in other words, they aren't seen at all.

USF and a small but growing number of colleges and universities are at the forefront of using information technology and advanced statistical analysis to see students in whole new ways. By sifting through vast stores of information that have accumulated in various administrative and educational data systems, they are discovering patterns about students that they never knew about before--why some succeed while others fail, and what can be done to help them. As a result, they're starting to crack the stubborn, widespread problem of high college dropout rates, and point toward a future where besieged public institutions can continue to thrive.

"Predictive analytics" is the name for this data-dependent approach, and you can be forgiven for wondering if it's just another overhyped high-tech fad. The techno-optimism of the late 1990s and early 2000s has given way to a world in which the tendency of technological innovation to improve our lives is much more in doubt. The exploitation of our personal data can border on the dystopian, whether it's Cambridge Analytica mining our Facebook profiles or health insurance companies raising our rates based on our online shopping history.

But there are reasons to believe that predictive analytics in higher ed could end up being the real deal. First, institutions like USF have already shown that it can work to improve student outcomes. At Georgia State University, for example, analytics was a key part of a push that saw a 30 percent jump in bachelor's degrees conferred in a five-year span. Second, there is an ecosystem of vendors who already know how to gather and interpret the data--schools don't have to figure it out on their own. Finally, there are powerful economic incentives for other schools to hop on the bandwagon. As more states shift to performance-funding mechanisms that reward colleges for rates of persistence (students sticking around year to year) and graduation, there's more pressure to figure out not just how to get students to apply and attend, but how to keep them in once they arrive. And with a flattening or even declining population of college-age students, all but the most selective schools will have to start considering a broader pool of applicants, including ones who might be less academically promising. Figuring out how to get more of them to graduate means more years of tuition dollars coming in.

If more institutions start behaving like USF, the results could be enormous. Even boosting graduation rates by just 5 percent nationwide would mean another hundred thousand people earning a bachelor's degree every year.

But there are headwinds pushing against the successful spread of predictive analytics. Universities may be politically liberal, but they're institutionally...

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