Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education

Data-based solutions, focus on financial needs driving gains among low-income students

May 05, 2021

Student at computer
Photo credit: University of Kentucky.

The weekly meetings at the University of Kentucky sound almost like a ritual at Amazon or Google headquarters.

Every Friday, around 70 campus leaders – faculty, staff and administrators – gather to review dozens of charts and data points that provide a real-time snapshot of student performance. If a group of students starts to slip, the team can immediately start crafting interventions.

Kirsten Turner
Kirsten Turner.

"We have a really strong understanding of our students from all different viewpoints," said Kirsten Turner, UK's vice president for student success. "We are able to use multi-variate analysis to really key in on the core issues that might be barriers for persistence and develop interventions based on that data."

It's a strategy that has helped UK lead the state for years in retaining and graduating low-income students and others struggling with unmet financial needs.

According to the latest progress report from the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, UK's six-year graduation rate for low-income students stood at 52.9% in the 2019-20 academic year. That's higher than any other public university in the state.

The university's second-year retention rate for low-income students also reached 81.2%, the highest among public institutions in Kentucky. Overall, UK awarded bachelor's degrees to close to 1,500 low-income students last year.

University officials say their data-informed, wide-table approach has allowed UK to better align resources with the needs of specific groups on campus. In the case of low-income students, that often includes financial support and financial literacy.

"This is a university-wide issue around student persistence and student achievement," Turner said. "We have tried to make this part of the fabric and culture within the campus, and we believe everyone has a role to play."

"Our understanding of these students and their needs has advanced tremendously in recent years, and that is helping drive innovations and better outcomes all around." - CPE President Aaron Thompson

Progress happening statewide

Although UK ranks at the top for low-income retention and graduation rates, it is not alone in its success. Across the state, public colleges and universities have achieved steady gains among low-income students since at least the 2015-16 academic year.

That's when CPE launched its five-year strategic plan, which set goals for each institution related to low-income students, along with a host of other areas.

CPE's progress report – released last month – shows that six- year graduation rates at public universities rose to 43.2% in 2019-20, up more than 4 percentage points from 2015-16. Second-year retention hit 75.5%, an increase of more than 6 percentage points over the period.

At the Kentucky Community and Technical College, the three-year graduation rate increased to 32.7%, up more than 9 percentage points since 2015-16. The retention rate also reached 55.8%, an increase of more than 5 points compared to four years ago.

"Campuses have really begun to fine-tune their support systems for low-income students," said CPE President Aaron Thompson. "Our understanding of these students and their needs has advanced tremendously in recent years, and that is helping drive innovations and better outcomes all around."

Expanding aid

At Eastern Kentucky University, the school's service region includes some of the poorest areas in the country, and the vast majority of students have at least some need. However, over the past four years, EKU has achieved some of the biggest gains in Kentucky related to retention and graduation of low-income students.

EKU's six-year graduation rate for low-income students has climbed by 7.1 percentage points since 2015-16, reaching 43.4% last year. Over the same period, the second-year retention rate for that group jumped 6.8 percentage points to 76.7%.

Gill Hunter
Gill Hunter

Gill Hunter, EKU's assistant vice president for retention and graduation, said much of the gains are due to efforts to breakdown distinctions between merit and need-based aid and expand merit aid to include more students.

"When we can push merit aid down farther, then we are also addressing needs to a greater extent," Hunter said. "We really have seen a difference there over the last few years."

Hunter said the retention rate for all students who receive a scholarship hovers around 80% compared to about 62% for non-recipients.

EKU is rolling out the latest round of changes to its scholarship model this fall. That includes substantial scholarships for students without a qualifying ACT score. Students with GPAs between 3 to 3.8 can receive merit-based scholarships under the plan. And students from EKU's home community, Madison County, will be eligible for a scholarship with a 2.5 GPA.

The university is also launching the "Colonel Commitment," a last-dollar, need-based scholarship for Pell Grant-eligible students, and the BookSmart initiative, which will provide free textbooks to all undergraduate students. The book program equates to about a $1,200 scholarship each year for the average student.

Varied approach

However, the financial piece is only one part of the solution. EKU has also taken aim at academic and social-emotional support.

Hunter said low-income students often fall into other categories like underprepared, first generation or underrepresented minority. However, the university's social and academic support structure was somewhat "ad hoc" in the past, he said.

That all changed when EKU opened its student success center in 2016. It provides a "one-stop shop" for students to receive tutoring, mentors and help with registration or financial aid, along with other services.

"That really has helped a whole lot of students," Hunter said. "They get hundreds and hundreds of students in there every semester and a lot of repeat visitors, which we think is a good sign of the value they add."

Data-informed solutions

Like EKU, UK takes a holistic approach to supporting low-income students that also targets academics, belonging and engagement, and emotional and physical wellness.

Officials said one benefit of using data and predictive analytics is the ability to discern between the different challenges facing students and create layers of interventions based on those variables.

Still, unmet financial need is one of the biggest factors causing students to leave school, and financial assistance is one of UK's most successful tools for helping low-income students stay enrolled.

UK's data modeling found that retention rates fall off quickly once a student has accumulated more $5,000 in unmet financial need. The data also showed that even a one-time grant could substantially increase the chances that a student will return.

That was the motivation behind UK's LEADS initiative (Leveraging Economic Affordability for Developing Success), an opportunity-based scholarship program launched in 2016. Of the students who received a LEADS grant in the first year, nearly 76% returned the following fall. UK's model predicted that, without the grant program, only about 58% would have persisted.

Students who receive a scholarship are also required to meet with a financial literacy counselor for advice on how to manage needs moving forward.

Officials say it's just one example of how data is driving solutions on campus to help low-income students succeed.

"The key part is connecting the data to the action," said Todd Brann, director of institutional research, analytics and decision support at UK. "We are really trying to create this perpetual assessment cycle to where we are always connecting the numbers to the process."

Last Updated: 7/20/2021