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UA: Letter grades in foundation courses good indicator of graduation likelihood
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UA: Letter grades in foundation courses good indicator of graduation likelihood

Traditionally, college students are considered at risk of dropping out if they are failing classes or have less than a 2.0 grade point average.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean students with higher GPAs don’t ever drop out or need additional help outside of the classroom.

The University of Arizona has discovered a new academic indicator to identify students who may fall through the cracks because they don’t appear to be at risk.

That indicator is the letter grade a student is getting in his or her foundation courses, such as English 101.

New analytics made possible through a partnership with Civitas Learning, an Austin-based company, helped UA officials find a correlation between letter grades in those courses and the likelihood of graduating.

Students who earn a C or lower are much less likely to graduate than those who earn Bs or Cs, because they will move on to higher level courses without having mastered the content, said Angela Baldasare, UA’s assistant provost for institutional research.

“Getting an A or a B is what matters for students to have an above-average likelihood of graduating,” she said. “It’s not enough for students to just pass, but it’s important to really master.”

For example, for English 101, students who get an A in that class are 16 percent more likely to graduate within six years than their peers, according to Baldasare. Those who get a B are 5 percent more likely. But those who get a C? They are 15 percent less likely to graduate. And if they fail, they are 55 percent less likely.

“By getting a C or below, you shifted your odds against graduation,” she said.

The university’s approach to working with student data has dramatically shifted this year with new predictive models and analytics, which allow for educators to delve deeper into student data, which then allows for more targeted outreach and intervention, she said.

The UA is feeding three data sets into the models to observe trends and identify students at risk of dropping out or failing.

They include the student information system, which includes all application, admissions and coursework data, data from UA’s online platform Desire 2 Learn and data from the Think Tank, the university’s tutoring center.

Previously, a lot of work surrounding identifying at-risk students had to do with GPAs and test scores.

The models have also helped the UA find out that the timing of registration could also be a risk factor; students who wait until the last minute or register late tend to be more at risk.

“With each of these, it’s just a signal,” Baldasare said. “It requires us to dig in and start to understand why.”

With the findings, the UA is collaborating with individual departments and colleges to develop new strategies to help students who may be falling through the cracks, said Christine Salvesen, senior director of academic success and achievement. That could mean connecting them to supplementary classes or the tutoring center.

“It’s an opportunity for us to all come together and see what’s working, what’s not,” she said.

Some of the strategies include implementing early progress grades, she said, meaning that in the middle of the semester, students receive a grade, which helps them find out what more they would need to get to an A and helps faculty find out what they can do to help.

Whether or not those early grades are helping is unknown, though, she said. This is the first semester the UA has tried it, and officials are still gathering data.

Another strategy is to use analytical tools to identify the bottom 20 percent of each department’s students, and provide that list to each department or college. The advisers on the ground can then take the information and reach out to the students.

Reaching out sometimes means a short “love note,” said Roxie Catts, director of UA’s advising resource center.

The targeted approach has led to huge gains, she said. In a university as big as the UA, which serves more than 42,000 students, it makes an impact for an adviser to personally reach out to a student and find out what’s going on in his or her life.

“If we just keep at this, I really feel like we’re going to have an impact, particularly on new students and those who haven’t found their academic home yet,” she said.

Contact reporter Yoohyun Jung at 573-4243 or On Twitter: @yoohyun_jung

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Data reporter

Data reporter on the investigative team for the Arizona Daily Star

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