At the University of Ottawa, researcher Ross Finnie has been experimenting with a custom-tailored, low-cost statistical model that can identify the students most likely to abandon their studies and offer them help as soon as possible. “This could turn around a lot of lives,” said Dr. Finnie, an economist who studies postsecondary education. “I think the institutions agree they have to be more proactive.”
Governments are pressing institutions to improve student retention as a way of creating a more educated work force, with Ontario’s government pledging to raise the percentage of Ontarians with a postsecondary credential to 70 per cent. Dr. Finnie and research associate Stephen Childs used simple data schools already have to predict which students will be at risk and tested it using an anonymous cohort of students from UOttawa, where graduation rates range from 63 to 99 per cent across various programs. Scrutinizing basic background factors such as whether a student is male and from out of town, they accurately identified 30 per cent of dropouts; tabulating high school marks zeroed in on 35 per cent; and adding first-term marks from university or college correctly tagged 45 per cent of students who left early.
Combining these factors makes the prediction more accurate, and adding answers from a survey asking questions such as “How are you doing?” and “Is your program a good fit for you?” could make the model even stronger. The first school to pilot Dr. Finnie’s model is Hamilton’s Mohawk College, where more than a quarter of students drop out before their second year. The school plans to use Dr. Finnie’s predictions to identify incoming students as either college ready, under-prepared or at risk, and approach them with customized levels of support.
Dalhousie University invites students with average marks below 60 per cent to Back on Track with an e-mail at the start of each term, but the school’s advisers have to wait for students to register low grades. And last fall, only 32 of 343 students contacted accepted the offer.
Some schools are trying their own experiments. The University of Guelph telephones students for informal checkups, and invites first-year students whose marks lag to Bounce Back, a voluntary mentoring program. Those who joined were 10 per cent more likely to stay in school and increased their grade point averages 5 per cent in the following semester, while those who didn’t saw little improvement.