Colleges use data mining to achieve student advantage

Algorithms support the data mining process. (Credit: Jupiterimages/Getty Images)

Algorithms support the data mining process. (Credit: Jupiterimages/Getty Images)

Spurred on by the problems of high student debt, colleges and universities in the past few years have resorted to data mining to improve academics and college GPA and to increase their graduation rates. Student advantage spikes after schools guide college students toward a degree program that will better help them graduate.

We all know we’re leaving a data trail, on our Facebook page, in our Google dealings, at Starbucks and through our credit card transactions. Now colleges and universities are using “big data” to decide what degree you should get. In an effort to derail failing students and put them on a path more conducive to passing and flourishing, colleges are employing data gathering systems to record freshmen’s Likes, clicks, scores and answers. These data are then used to convince a failing chemistry student to take business or a lackluster art major to take engineering.

Why encourage students to graduate?

Education is big business, and colleges want to keep being in business. Too many failing students is bad for business and bad for their reputation. Tailoring degrees and classes to students’ abilities helps to graduate more students. Why not use the same tools that advertisers and department stores use to cater specifically to a customer?

“As it happened with Internet commerce (Facebook ads), sports (think Moneyball) and politics (Obama 2012), organizations have figured out new ways to utilize data to create value for themselves and clients. The same push to use data to match students to the best major or school is already percolating in higher ed. Two states, Arkansas and Tennessee, have already created databases to help students figure out which degrees will have the most value after graduation,” wrote David Wilezol in “Skyrocketing Costs of a College Degree” in Washington Times, May 20, 2013, found on

How data mining works

In 2011, Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee, under direction of Tristan Denley, provost and vice president for Academic and Student Affairs, used the Degree Compass system to match students with degrees and help them graduate. In “New data mining program acts as virtual academic advisor,” posted on USA Today College, October 17, 2013, Annie Johnson wrote: “Inspired by recommendation systems such as those of Amazon or Netflix, the algorithm sorts through mountains of data, including past students’ grades and test scores, to help tailor recommendations specific to each student. ‘The student-focused interface allows students to make informed decisions about their education,’ Denley said. ‘It empowers them.’”

Information gathered by the Degree Compass helps students stay on track academically, suggests courses that keep students on their degree path, and matches courses with a student’s performance level.

Consequences of data mining

Critics fear that relying on computers to decide a college student’s fate is dangerous. If graduation is the only goal, some students may opt for easy classes they know they can pass rather than classes that will challenge them. They may not explore subjects outside their major. Students could also be led toward classes or majors that they have little interest in.

In “College Degrees, Designed by the Numbers” in Chronicle of Higher Education posted July 18, 2012, Marc Parry reports: “We don’t want to turn into just eHarmony,” says Michael Zimmer, an assistant professor in the School of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, where he studies the ethical dimensions of new technology. “I’m worried that we’re taking both the richness and the serendipitous aspect of courses and professors and majors—and all the things that are supposed to be university life—and instead translating it into 18 variables that spit out, ‘This is your best fit. So go over here.’”

Results from data mining

No matter which side you’re on, programs like Degree Compass seem to be working. Austin Peay State University’s Denley says that after two years using the system, students are doing better and that there is a strong correlation between computer-recommended courses and completion of hours toward graduation.

Arkansas State University in Jonesboro has successfully used data mining and predictive modeling to identify students at risk of failing. The programs allow college administration to find these students, reach out to them and empower them to self-identify and self-report that they might be at risk. The system also helps the school find the most exceptional students so they can celebrate milestones in their progress toward a degree and encourage them further.

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Would you let data analysis decide what major is best for you? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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