A Tool for Increasing Application and Retention Rates for At-Risk Students

Image of Students at a One-Stop Success Center


The US Department of Education has awarded multi-million dollar “First in the World” grants to 18 colleges, universities, and organizations that are innovating to solve critical challenges with access, recruitment, retention, and student success. At AI, we have interviewed each of the recipients to learn more about the projects these institutions are pursuing, how their approaches are unique, and what other colleges and universities can learn from these new efforts.

2015 was the second year of the First in the World grants. You can read our interviews with the 24 institutions that received 2014 grants here.

Is college choice always an informed choice? Often, first-generation and low-income students enroll at a college or university that someone in their family knows about, or simply enroll at the institution closest to home, regardless of whether that student and that institution are a good fit. First generation and low-income students may find themselves overwhelmed with promotional materials from several colleges but lack the knowledge to determine which institution will best suit their skill sets and goals. And often they can’t rely on the prior experience of other family members to help them make the best choice.

Yet there is research to indicate that finding the right college — a good fit in terms of a student’s academic profile (GPA and desired major) and personal preferences as to location, extra-curricular activities, and school size — may improve persistence and graduation rates. Unfortunately, proven tools for connecting students with the right fit are lacking.

A New Tool to Address this Issue

Delaware State University, where more than 70% of the students are low-income or first-generation, is partnering with the American Council on Education’s American College Application Campaign, ACT, and the National Student Clearinghouse to address this issue with the help of a $2.6 million First in the World Grant. The project, Access to Success, will use predictive modeling to develop a College Match-and-Fit Tool to improve college access and boost persistence and success rates for first generation and low-income students.

The College Match-and-Fit Tool will provide students with a list of colleges and universities that are the best match with their profiles — and won’t limit students to certain types of institutions or to the ones located in their state.

To learn more about how the tool will work, how it differs from other college-match tools, and what impact the project leaders hope the tool will achieve, we spoke recently with Alton Thompson, the now-former provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at DSU; Bobby Kanoy, senior fellow at the American Council on Education; and Melissa Caperton, senior associate at the American Council on Education. Here is what they shared with us.

How this Tool May Improve Student Persistence and Completion

Access to Success grew in part out of the American Council on Education’s American College Application Campaign (ACAC), which started as a college access initiative designed to boost college application rates in North Carolina. The program’s success led ACE to expand it to other states and led to the partnership with DSU for this new initiative.

Although several college fit tools have been developed previously, Kanoy notes that none of these account comprehensively for an array of factors that can influence student success:

  • Student lifestyle preferences regarding the size of the campus and location
  • Students’ academic interests
  • Academic preparedness
  • Socioeconomic data and financial need
  • Demographics
  • Career aspirations

In pulling these four key areas together, project leaders for Access to Success hope to study whether the new tool will make a difference not only in where students enroll but also in retention and completion rates. Additionally, Thompson explains that the partnership between DSU, ACE’s ACAC, the NSC, and ACT will provide a much richer, complex body of data that can be used to better predict the factors involved in students’ application, enrollment, and retention decisions:

  • ACT test scores, results from the ACT profile, and self-reported student preferences will be used in the data analytics and predictive modeling to determine a best match and fit.
  • Because all three partners for DSU are national organizations, Access to Success will be able to construct a tool to fit students to public and private, two-year and four-year colleges and universities anywhere in the nation. Students will receive a list of schools that meet their specific profile (such as colleges with a strong business or strong engineering program) rather than only a selection of local institutions.
  • To determine impact, NSC data will be used to track enrollment and persistence. This partnership with NSC will allow them to follow students through enrollment and up to their second year of college. Access to Success outcomes will be evaluated by external evaluator Chrissy Tillery, director of evaluation at the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships.

“If we can develop a model that will increase the enrollment and persistence of first-generation and low-income high school students, that will have a large impact on increasing the nation’s college graduation rate.”
Alton Thompson, Delaware State University

The project will test approximately 2,000 juniors from Delaware high schools. When this cohort applies to colleges, some will use DSU’s College Match-and-Fit Tool, while the control group will not. The tool will use predictive data to recommend three to five institutions at which a specific participant in the study will be likely to be most successful. High school counselors will receive technical assistance and recommended practices regarding implementation of the College Match-and-Fit Tool and counseling of students once they receive a list of recommended postsecondary institutions.

After development and testing, DSU and its partners hope to make the tool available to students nationwide.

Why You Should Watch This Project

“This project has enormous national implications,” emphasizes Eric Cheek, who has recently succeeded Thompson as the principal investigator at DSU. “Students who have had only the guidance counselor’s advice on choosing the right institution in the past will now have an analytics tool that is based on their aptitude, achievements and desires, thus giving them options that a counselor may not have considered.”

While most colleges have invested in interventions to help at-risk students succeed, this new tool could offer data that predicts a good match and fit for students before they start. If successful, the Access to Success Project’s College Match-and-Fit tool will be a critical step in helping high school guidance counselors assist at-risk students in determining which institutions may provide them with the best chance to succeed in college and graduate.