As a National Louis University team of instructors and success coaches met for its weekly review of students’ data, they noticed that the A and B grades of one sophomore in the Pathways at NLU program had begun to drop. After conferring quickly around the table, they decided this student’s coach should reach out to the student.
The coach discovered that the student did not have a stable home and was also struggling with having a dependable job and income. Many Pathways students come from under-resourced families in underserved Chicago-area neighborhoods, so they face realities such as having to work full-time, pay rent and care for family members. In this case, the coach worked with the student to find stable housing and employment. Without such intervention, the student would likely have dropped out of higher education.
This anecdote appears in the newly-released Case Study of Pathways at NLU, an explainer on how the Pathways team uses thoughtful data techniques, human mentoring and other strategies to help disadvantaged students enter and persist in college and graduate with four-year degrees. The team continuously refines these methods in order to improve outcomes and share the most effective techniques with other educators.
The case study highlights Pathways’ ultimate goal of educating students who might not otherwise have gone to college and preparing them for fulfilling careers and economic mobility. In the 2017-18 class of Pathways’ students, for example, 82 percent were eligible for Pell grants, 82 percent were the first generation in their families to attend college, were 94 percent underrepresented minorities and had an average high school GPA of 2.7.
Now in its fourth year, the program is succeeding on measures of growth, academic progress and retention. Enrollment has grown from the original 85 students to more than 1,000. In terms of academic performance, the number of “on track to graduate” students has grown from 60 percent for the first cohort to 76 percent for the 2017-18 cohort. The retention rate between years one and two for the first two cohorts was 70 percent, outperforming the 53 percent persistence rate for Chicago Public Schools students with similar academic profiles at other higher education institutions.
Many factors contribute to helping Pathways at NLU and its students succeed. These include an affordable $10,000 tuition rate, which is covered by grants for many students, personalized learning technology and two-day-a-week blended class schedules.
However, Pathways’ two most important weapons against failure have become people, in the form of student success coaches and instructors, and data, or more specifically, smart ways of using data to gain insights into how students are doing.
The case study explains how NLU’s Pathways team uses data to track students’ progress weekly, to help give instructors a big-picture view of how students are doing so they can adjust coursework if necessary, and identify trends or challenges in the courses and course sequences so that the team can make improvements.
Some of Pathways’ most notable successes have taken place when coaches and instructors gather weekly to go over student data, notice something that stands out, confer among themselves and then reach out to a student to offer supportive assistance. As in the story at the beginning of this post, sometimes this outreach makes the difference between a student continuing in college or dropping out.
These small successes are usually unheralded, but they are deserving of fanfare. They are the places where the “rubber” of life challenges meets the “road” of academic work, and a university prepared to help students navigate this juncture is better able to see them through to graduation. While National Louis University’s team members continue to refine methods and strategies, they are gratified at the successes so far and willing to share and expand their findings with educators, researchers, funders and others interested in closing the opportunity gap for students who face an uphill climb toward their college diplomas.