A growing body of research has attributed at least part of the gap in degree completion between low- and high-income undergraduates to low-income students’ difficulty navigating the terrain of academic choices in college. Deciding on a major, choosing courses, and recognizing a warning sign and knowing what to do about it are all more challenging for students who have less background familiarity with college. Ill-informed choices have real consequences: A student’s failure to register for even a single course in a timely way, for example, can delay progress to degree by as much as a year, greatly increase costs, and make it more likely that a student will drop-out.

Proactive, data-informed advising appears to have the potential to level the playing field. A randomized study by Eric Bettinger and Rachel Baker determined that an intensive series of proactive coaching interventions led to a statistically significant increase in the persistence and degree completion rates of high-need students. Yet, currently, only 34% of public universities require students to meet with academic advisors on a regular basis, and only 2% have advisors who intervene proactively in response to alerts.

The US Department of Education appears set on making effective advising more common. Georgia State University, on behalf of the University Innovation Alliance, a practice-sharing consortium of eleven large, forward-looking, public research universities, just won an $8.9 million federal grant through the Department of Education’s First in the World program to undertake a large-scale test of cutting-edge, proactive advising for low-income students. Ithaka S+R will serve as the independent evaluator on the project, overseeing the randomized trials, analyzing the impact on students, and documenting and providing feedback on implementation. The most effective practices will be scaled up at all eleven institutions. This grant is one of two large “validation” grants; the second went to Central Carolina Community College and partners, who will test a similar advising model in the community college context.

The four-year project, called Monitoring Advising Analytics to Promote Success (MAAPS), will track cohorts of low- income and first-generation students who are enrolled at the eleven universities that constitute the University Innovation Alliance: Arizona State University, Georgia State University (the lead institution on the grant proposal), Iowa State University, Michigan State University, The Ohio State University, Oregon State University, Purdue University, University of California Riverside, University of Central Florida, University of Kansas, and University of Texas at Austin. At least 900 students at each of these universities will be randomly selected into intervention and control groups, for a total study population of about 10,000 students. The intervention group will receive, in addition to advising services typically offered by the campus, (a) intensive, proactive advisement to help them navigate key academic choices and to establish individualized academic maps, (b) real-time alerts prompted by a system of analytics-based tracking when they go off path, and (c) timely, targeted advising interventions to get them back on the appropriate academic path.

Ithaka S+R’s evaluation will address two key research questions: What are the benefits for at-risk students of introducing systematic, proactive advising at scale?  How can we design and implement these advising interventions to maximize their positive effects?

To answer these questions, we will track ten key student-success metrics for the intervention and control groups, including a novel measure of academic progression based on the academic “map” created for each student through the use of predictive analytics. In addition, we will be conducting annual surveys and interviews to elicit insights of key stakeholders about the impacts and effectiveness of the advising services and to ensure that the project’s key milestones are met. We will use this information to conduct within- and cross-institutional analyses to identify, describe, and contextualize the impact of and best practices for proactive academic advisement. Results will be disseminated through reports, academic articles, and conference presentations.

The potential impacts of this experiment are significant. Bettinger and Baker found that the proactive coaching model they studied improved low-income students’ year-to-year retention rates by 9 to 14 percent. The UIA institutions collectively serve over 388,000 undergraduates, about 108,000 of them Pell-eligible.  Extrapolating the Bettinger and Baker finding to this population would mean an additional 10,000 students retained each year. If such results bear out, the benefits to the students, the institutions, and the nation would be profound.

We are thrilled to be a part of the project, and look forward to working with colleagues at UIA institutions across the country.