Using Data to Support Student Success

Thursday, March 9, 2017

At the end of each semester, I have the opportunity to participate in the UK Commencement Ceremonies. I look out over an arena of blue caps and gowns— tassels waving, an audience swelling with pride, faces beaming with accomplishment.

But after the jubilation ends, when we begin to sweep confetti from Rupp Arena’s floor and head to the parking lot, my mind goes to those students whose hands President Capilouto didn’t shake: the students who, for a number of reasons, started their journey at UK, but didn’t cross that stage.

So, how do we help them finish their journey at UK and successfully start the next chapter of their lives?

Earlier this semester we announced the Leveraging Economic Affordability for Developing Success (UKLEADS) initiative, through which the university will begin to award more of its institutional aid based on financial need.

Our research demonstrates that students leave the institution for various reasons, of which academic success is only one. In fact, last year, one-third of students who left UK had GPAs of 3.0 or higher. Increasingly, faculty, admission officers, advisors, and financial aid staff hear from students and families who are unable to attend or forced to leave UK due to finances.

Over the last year, in an attempt to isolate and better understand the effects of financial factors on student success, we looked descriptively at various financial variables, including:

  • Adjusted gross income
  • Expected family contribution
  • Gross need (the gap between cost of attendance and a family’s estimated contribution)
  • Unmet need (the gap between cost of attendance and a family’s estimated contribution and aid package)
  • Student account balance
  • Financial holds 

Based on this analysis, unmet need stood out as a significant variable describing the negative effect of finances on retention. In other words, unmet financial need is often the biggest factor in students leaving the institution. Moreover, Kentucky residents are more likely than non-residents to be impacted by unmet financial need.

In fact, with as little as $5,000 in unmet financial need, the number of students who move forward in their academic careers drops several percentage points, regardless of academic skill.

This is the rationale behind the UK LEADS program.

Beginning next year, the university will begin shifting some institutional aid to address financial need. All 2016-17 currently enrolled students receiving an academic scholarship from the University of Kentucky will continue to do so, according to the renewal criteria for their particular award. 

Moving forward, we want to continue to understand how we can best allocate resources to have the biggest impact on student success.

To that end, equipped with these data, we began an evaluation process for a pilot project. We wanted to determine if student success could be improved through the reduction of unmet need. The goal was to identify the optimal strategy that would positively impact the greatest number of students, and, of course, then measure the effects of such an implementation.

To test the effectiveness of our predictive modeling, our team tested a series of scenarios for improving retention from the first to second year. Each scenario clustered students based on combinations of negative retention indicators with the goal of identifying those who could most benefit from additional funds. Through this process, we identified a group of 178 students to pilot the one-time grant and financial counseling services, and we will monitor the effect of the interventions over the next year.

Our goal is simple, but potentially powerful: we want every student who enrolls at the University of Kentucky to earn a degree. It’s our job to ensure the resources, across all four pillars of student success—academic success, financial stability, wellness and belonging—are available to maximize student support.

Through UK LEADS, we believe we are addressing one of the most important issues head on in a strategic and thoughtful way. We hope – and we believe – that our students and their success will benefit from this approach in ways that transform lives and change our institution for the better.


Timothy S. Tracy