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Students walk around on the University of California, Irvine, campus

University of California, Irvine, leaders made revisions to academic policies to boost retention and graduation rates among undergraduates.

University of California, Irvine

Identifying why students stop out can be a mystery for administrators, but data analysis can help solve it.

Early alert systems provide insight for faculty and staff to recognize what student factors may make them at risk for failing or leaving the university, but the University of California, Irvine, has flipped the script to identify what institutional practices were hindering students.

Through data analysis, university leaders learned the change-of-major policy was one factor deterring undergraduate completion, particularly among underrepresented minority students, and then they pivoted campus policy and resources to better support learners.

The ground floor: The University of California, Irvine, is highly literate with its data.

UCI Compass is a universitywide initiative that organizes data sets for interdisciplinary collaboration, focused on the student journey and barriers to success. Through Compass, the university has built a “student data warehouse,” pulling information across student success, enrollment management analytics, the Office of Institutional Research and academic departments, explains Michael Dennin, vice provost for teaching and learning and dean of undergraduate education.

A newer project, the UCI MUST (short for Measuring Undergraduate Success Trajectories) Project, launched in fall 2019 to track undergraduate movement using enrollment management data and surveys as well as finer points, like metrics from the university’s learning management software.

UCI belongs to two networks focused on student outcomes and data, Michigan State’s Seismic Collaborative focused on equity in STEM outcomes and the nonprofit consortium Unizin.

With a six-year graduation rate at 85 percent, the university gets to narrow its focus on the 15 to 20 percent of students not completing, “really to look at, can we identify structures in the university that are barriers, as opposed to identifying an individual students having a challenge?” Dennin explains.

Early predictive models at UCI found that, on average, admission into UCI was the biggest predictor of graduating, so the university had to drill down into more granular experiences.

The situation: After digging through the data, Dennin and his team found that, among the students who didn’t graduate, an overwhelming trend was that none of the students changed their major.

UCI’s undergraduates declare a major at enrollment, and, during their college career, 40 to 50 percent will change their major at least once, Dennin explains. To be eligible to change their major, students had to be in good academic standing (at a 2.0 GPA and making progress toward degree).

“Which, from one side makes a lot of sense … you would like students to be in good academic standing to change their major; it was not unreasonable,” Dennin says. “But from the other side, it’s weird, because if you’re requiring them to pick a major and they’re picking the wrong major or one they don’t like, their GPA is likely to be below 2.0.”

Of students who stop out at UCI, around half drop off after their first year of college and another half will drop out after their second year. Students with a 2.0 GPA for more than one quarter saw increased risk of not graduating, which is also when they run into three UCI policies about poor academic standing: change of major, financial aid and academic probation.

The data showed that students were performing well in some courses, just not all of them, further prompting administrators to consider the role of the change-of-major policy.

“Even if the student’s GPA was below 2.0, almost all of them are getting A’s and B’s in, like, at least two to three courses,” Dennin adds. “So there was clearly something they were good at.”

Making change: After noticing the problem in early 2022, Dennin met with the Academic Senate that fall to discuss policy changes. Change of major was a correlation among stopped-out students, not causation, “but it was the strongest correlation,” Dennin explains. “Even if we turn out to be wrong, it’s still a good thing for the students.”

In the revised policy, a student’s eligibility will not be based on overall GPA but individual courses, Dennin says. “Now the pathway becomes, ‘OK, you’re struggling in major X and your GPA is below 2.0. But you got an A and a B in the two courses that major Y requires you. Now you’re good to change.’”

The policy change also doesn’t have a negative impact on units. While the change means students could enter a new department on academic recovery, the university expects only around 200 students to be impacted by the shift.

Moving forward: The policy change officially took effect in May, so students returning in the fall will be the first to benefit from the shift. The goal is to increase first-year retention among students with a 2.0 GPA from 60 percent to 80 percent, compared to peers with higher GPAs, who have a 90 percent retention rate.

The next step is making students aware of the changes, which will come primarily from academic advising, Dennin says. Peer advisers from the undeclared advising office have reached out to students on academic probation to share information and resources in light of the revised policy.

University leaders are also clarifying processes around financial aid and adding summer scholarships to reduce stop-outs among students.

Next year, the university will look at the broader elements of the change-of-major policy for further revision and student understanding.

How has your institution used data to promote student success? Share with us.

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