Share with your friends


Analytics Magazine

Can better data keep students from dropping out of college?


One of the biggest challenges to college education in the United States is the staggering number of students who don’t, in the end, earn degrees. Attrition doesn’t just mean a bunch of Americans with half-finished college careers; it also means huge sunk costs for students. Which often translate to student-loan defaults.

Much of that, says Charles Thornburgh, a former senior executive at Kaplan, is preventable. “Students are operating in an information vacuum,” he says.

It’s very easy to be spectacularly non-strategic when it comes to selecting the courses and majors that will inform what students learn – and, in turn, what career paths they take (or don’t take).

In other words, higher education has not been terribly data-driven.

Thornburgh is hoping to change that through the recent launch of Civitas Learning, a digital-education platform that uses predictive analytics to help guide educational decision-making. Civitas works with partner institutions – and also, more specifically, with the data those partner institutions have gathered about their students – to identify trends about the classes students enroll in, the majors they take on and other factors that can determine career courses and overall success in their post-collegiate lives.

Particularly as the college experience becomes less about setting four years aside to explore, and more about fitting education in with jobs/kids/etc., making smart decisions about courses will have a direct bearing, Thornburgh argues, on students’ ability to stay in school.

Civitas’ current and potential partner institutions include a wide range: everything from community colleges to four-year universities to proprietary schools. Diversity here, as in other aspects of higher education, can be a benefit. Civitas takes the data those schools have gathered about their students – demographic, behavioral, academic – and “anonymizes, normalizes, analyzes and combines” it. The company then uses the data to identify trends and takeaways: which courses and tracks are most beneficial, and for which kinds of students; which courses and tracks tend to have high attrition rates; which instructional approaches tend to be most effective at ensuring good educational outcomes. Civitas then translates those insights into real-time recommendations for students, instructors and administrators through a customized platform.

Think of it as digital education with an old-school twist. One of the elements of the new explosion of online learning is the data that all the new platforms will be gathering about students’ demographic backgrounds, learning styles and general progress through course materials, all of which can be used to create better, more effective learning environments. But while the most notable digital learning services suggest all the new data that can be generated on their platforms, Civitas is making use of data that are already there: administrative and demographic and behavioral records, the kind that have always been collected by schools, but which have generally been locked away in the filing cabinets of administrative offices.

And huge amounts of data, Thornburgh points out, translate to reliable analytics. For a given course, he says, “Once you get good at predicting students’ engagement patterns, for every starting group of 100 students, you can predict how students will interact with the course.” And while the Civitas platform is purposely granular – it allows students and instructors to track student progress not just on a course-by-course, but test-by-test basis – the overall point is how course performance translates to college performance in general. One of the key insights Civitas offers is its insistent connection between present and future. The minor choices students make, it argues, are not minor choices at all: They have a direct and crucial bearing on students’ ultimate success, in academia and in what will follow. Civitas’ models provide a real-time view of which students are at risk of dropping out of school; which courses and degree paths might be contributing to attrition; and which resources and interventions might be most successful at preventing attrition.

The point isn’t to take the serendipity out of college education, Thornburgh is quick to note. Rather, it’s to help students and teachers and administrators make better-informed decisions when it comes to class selection and other choices that can have a bearing on a student’s overall academic record. Basically, “we give them Netflix-style recommendations,” Thornburgh says.

Of course, what a student does with the recommendations is up to each individual.



Using machine learning and optimization to improve refugee integration

Andrew C. Trapp, a professor at the Foisie Business School at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), received a $320,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to develop a computational tool to help humanitarian aid organizations significantly improve refugees’ chances of successfully resettling and integrating into a new country. Built upon ongoing work with an international team of computer scientists and economists, the tool integrates machine learning and optimization algorithms, along with complex computation of data, to match refugees to communities where they will find appropriate resources, including employment opportunities. Read more →

Gartner releases Healthcare Supply Chain Top 25 rankings

Gartner, Inc. has released its 10th annual Healthcare Supply Chain Top 25 ranking. The rankings recognize organizations across the healthcare value chain that demonstrate leadership in improving human life at sustainable costs. “Healthcare supply chains today face a multitude of challenges: increasing cost pressures and patient expectations, as well as the need to keep up with rapid technology advancement, to name just a few,” says Stephen Meyer, senior director at Gartner. Read more →

Meet CIMON, the first AI-powered astronaut assistant

CIMON, the world’s first artificial intelligence-enabled astronaut assistant, made its debut aboard the International Space Station. The ISS’s newest crew member, developed and built in Germany, was called into action on Nov. 15 with the command, “Wake up, CIMON!,” by German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst, who has been living and working on the ISS since June 8. Read more →



INFORMS Computing Society Conference
Jan. 6-8, 2019; Knoxville, Tenn.

INFORMS Conference on Business Analytics & Operations Research
April 14-16, 2019; Austin, Texas

INFORMS International Conference
June 9-12, 2019; Cancun, Mexico

INFORMS Marketing Science Conference
June 20-22; Rome, Italy

INFORMS Applied Probability Conference
July 2-4, 2019; Brisbane, Australia

INFORMS Healthcare Conference
July 27-29, 2019; Boston, Mass.

2019 INFORMS Annual Meeting
Oct. 20-23, 2019; Seattle, Wash.

Winter Simulation Conference
Dec. 8-11, 2019: National Harbor, Md.


Advancing the Analytics-Driven Organization
Jan. 28–31, 2019, 1 p.m.– 5 p.m. (live online)


CAP® Exam computer-based testing sites are available in 700 locations worldwide. Take the exam close to home and on your schedule:

For more information, go to