One of the unfortunate realities of higher education is that not everyone who enters the academy leaves with a degree. The percentage of students who drop out and never receive a diploma varies among institutions, but at nearly every college and university in the country, it’s considered a serious problem.

Educause’s report on the top 10 IT issues of 2020 highlights this problem, ranking it as the number six issue in their report. Of course, this report was released before the COVID-19 pandemic moved most higher education online—exacerbating the problem of student retention even further.

You may be wondering why Educause would list student retention and completion as an “IT issue” when it seems to be more about studying, test-taking, and writing papers – the things students actually do to graduate.

The reason is simple: early intervention for students who are struggling is one of the best ways to increase retention and graduation rates. And by using available data, institutions can greatly increase their chances of figuring out which students are at risk, intervening early, and keeping them on the path to graduation.

How Data Fuels Early Intervention

Every year, education institutions collect immense amounts of data on both current and prospective students. Courses completed (in both high school and college), courses dropped, grades, test scores, and more are all at the institution’s fingertips. Too often, however, this data goes unused or underutilized.

However, by using new technologies, schools can begin to use all that data to discern patterns and understand the risk profiles of individual students given their course load and past experiences.

New programs can create student profiles based on their data, providing their institution with their risk percentage in different subjects, as well as course recommendations based on the student’s profile, course complexity, and behavioral factors.

Humans and AI Working in Tandem

Obviously, the final decision will be made by the student in consultation with their academic advisor. But by empowering the advisor with information related to each individual student’s risk factors based on a specific course load, we can stop issues with retention before they arise.

Take a student who had a tough time with his courses last semester, and is loading up with more high-complexity courses this semester. He is at an increased risk for burnout, and another bad semester might stop his academic progression altogether. If the advisor is able to recommend swapping a high-risk course (or two) with one that does a better job balancing the student’s schedule, it gives him the best chance to be back at school next year.

Protecting the data

It’s been a long time since “privacy” just meant putting up a fence to keep nosy neighbors at bay. Today, when people speak of privacy, they’re often talking about data privacy. The reason is simple: more and more of what we do—both online and in the “real world”—can be transformed into data that is collected, analyzed, and sold. And in many cases, all of this happens without our permission.

The Role of Data in Higher Education

If there’s to be the proper trust between students and their institutions, school’s need to be able to answer basic questions like,

“What data is being collected?”

“Who has access to the data?”

“What measures are in place to keep it secure?”

The answers aren’t always as clear cut as they should be.

Take the example of “gray data.” Many types of data are already regulated in some form. Laws like the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and California’s Consumer Protection Act will almost certainly be followed by more rules and regulations surrounding the collection, storage, and sale of data. But in some cases, data still falls into gray areas. For instance, when a student uses her key card to swipe in and out of their dorm, that generates data. If the same key card is used for buying meals, to access the rec and other facilities, or to take attendance in class, then it could be used to track a student’s whereabouts with a frightening degree of accuracy.

It may not be illegal to collect such data, but that doesn’t mean institutions should be cavalier about doing so. No organization—including the government and Fortune 500 companies—is immune to breaches of their security systems.

And once data has been compromised, there is no turning back the clock. Students can’t simply be reimbursed for their data once it’s been stolen.

Making Data Privacy an Institutional Priority

Colleges and universities around the country are collecting unimaginable amounts of data from their students every year. To gain and keep the trust of their student body, they should begin to view themselves as stewards not just of their students’ educations, but of their data, as well.

Institutions should begin safeguarding their students’ data by making privacy a priority at every level.

The hiring of a chief privacy officer is a good first step. Ideally, it would happen in tandem with the creation of a privacy board, the drafting of a crisis response plan for data, and a review of data storage and classifications. Most importantly, institutions need to be communicating clearly and regularly with students about privacy policies, simplifying opt-out processes, and generally working to sustain their trust.

About the author

Kiran Kodithala.jpg

Kiran Kodithala is a technology leader and a seasoned expert in the field of educational technology. As the founder and CEO of N2N Services Inc. since 2010, Kiran has been at the forefront of driving innovation in higher education through technology. With a career spanning over 25 years dedicated to the sector, he has established himself as a pivotal figure in transforming how educational institutions leverage technology for better outcomes.
Under Kiran's leadership, N2N Services Inc. has grown to become a leading integrator providing cutting-edge solutions to the challenges faced by educational institutions. His passion for integrating technology into education has led to the development of transformative products like Illuminate and These innovative platforms embody his commitment to harnessing the power of AI and secure data integration to revolutionize educational institutions globally.