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How a First-Generation Student Helped Build a Tool Tackling a Barrier to Student Success

While studying for a chemistry exam in 2017, University of Kentucky freshman Hayden Free had a chance encounter with a graduate research assistant helping then-Associate Provost for Student and Academic Life Dr. Greg Heileman. At the time, Dr. Heileman was undertaking research related to the foundations of Curricular Analytics, a free online tool showing how classes interact with each other and rates each major with a complexity value. It also creates an interactive data visualization so users can examine each potential pathway through the major in isolation.

The encounter led Free to a years-long partnership with Dr. Heileman as the then-nascent Curricular Analytics effort unveiled a series of new resources to help more institutions, including several Powered by Publics institutions, see how the complexity of degree programs can either facilitate or hamper student’s progress toward a degree. Free, a first-generation student pursuing a degree in computer science, was tapped as a research assistant focused on data collection, research, and programming.

Since graduating from the University of Kentucky last year, Free has been working full time on the Curricular Analytics project updating and expanding the toolkit. Playing a role in the research has helped shaped his career ambitions, with a master’s degree on the horizon and the potential to pursue a Ph.D. His experience as a first-generation student has also informed the lessons he’s gleaned working on the project. For financially constrained students, for example, an extra semester to finish a degree might not just lead to a student to take on extra debt, but lead them to stop out of college altogether if student aid dries up.

Cutting down on curricular complexity can have a significant impact on student success. Thanks in part to actions taken as a result of insights from Curricular Analytics insights, the University of New Mexico, where Dr. Heileman previously held appointments, has tripled its four-year graduation rate over the past eight years. Other institutions have used the software to see the complexity of the programs and make adjustments. One computer engineering program, for example, realized that complex degree requirements made difficult if not impossible to complete a degree in four years. They’ve made changes that now allow students to complete a degree in 120 credit hours.

Since the online platform is open source, any institution can enter its degree programs and benchmark them against peers as well as some of the most competitive programs in the field. Looking at this wide landscape of programs, it becomes clear that for some programs such as electrical engineering and computer science, degree complexity is inversely correlated with the competitiveness of the program nationally. The software has also helped institutions spot what for some is unexpected complexity in programs such as music.

Other takeaways are more nuanced, says Free. Among advisors, it’s well known that students are sometimes best served by not taking two courses, such as Calculus 1 and Physics, at the same time because concepts learned in one course help students thrive in the other. Alternatively, courses taken concurrently can be synergistic for student learning. But students’ needs vary and there may be other important data points to inform course selection. A math ACT below a certain threshold, for example, can inform an optimal degree plan for that student while also helping them graduate in a timely manner.

Yet the tool’s greatest value, says Free, isn’t helping administrators identify barriers to progression and eliminating them but instead sparking a dialogue with faculty about whether their program is appropriately complex. Complexity isn’t inherently bad; needless complexity is. Curricular Analytics helps faculty and administrators to see the complexity of a program, benchmarked against programs at other institutions, and take action based on what they’ve found.

The possibility for greater institutional uptake of the tool would open additional doors to impact student success. In a world where the degree programs were widely inputted into the Curricular Analytics platform, students looking to transfer could easily see how their courses would translate at their new institution regardless of whether the two institutions have an existing articulation agreement, cutting down on credits that are transferred as electives, credits lost altogether, and students stopping out of their degree progression.

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