In my last post, I introduced myself and gave some background about data science in academia. This time, I want to look at one facet of higher education: the time to graduate.
It’s About Time
Time to Graduate: the number of years between when a student’s first college classes and when they leave with a degree.
Colleges don’t have fixed prices for degrees; they charge for each day/quarter/year you’re enrolled. Students adjust their finances each year to handle different combinations of loans, scholarships, grants, and tuition. State funding is similar: public institutions are often funded by giving a certain amount per student, per year.
Everyone would benefit if students graduate faster without sacrificing the quality of their education. Students would have less debt. Governments would spend less per student. Universities could have a greater enrollment capacity.
Since student debt contributes to income inequality, effectively lowering the cost per degree would help make society more equitable.
The Six-Year Metric
Universities are often judged by the percentage of 4-year students who graduate within six years. The UW graduates 82% of its 4-year student population within 6 years (per UW Fast Facts). That’s considered good.
Only 58% of students graduate in 4 years.
Wait a minute. Why is anyone measuring how many 4-year degrees take less than six years? Why are universities given 50% slack?
Let’s imagine other metrics with 50% slack:
- 30-year mortgages paid off within 45 years
- 30 mpg cars that get at least 20 miles a gallon
- 4-hour flights that take less than 6 hours.
- 40-hour workweeks that require less than 60 hours a week?
That’s a bit ridiculous, IMHO. Before we go further, let’s think about why it takes time to get a degree at all.
Hoops and Hurdles
What are the barriers, good and bad, that prevent students from graduating?
Some barriers to graduation are necessary. Learning takes time. Research and discovery take time. The ever-narrower specialties in modern industry take more training (read: time).
Some barriers to graduation are unnecessary. Required courses are full. Popular departments turn away qualified students. Students have to start over when searching for a specialty. Some students take a long time to find a specialty at all.
The Challenge of Choice
The University of Washington, like many universities, offers many different areas of specialization (majors), leading to different credentials (degrees). Currently the UW offers ~180 majors, and over a thousand courses.
How do students pick which courses to take? How do they choose which majors to pursue? How do they choose what research to learn about?
Humans don’t respond well when given too many choices . One reason is psychological; we can only keep ~7 things in memory at once.
“You literally ought to be asking yourself all the time what is the most important thing in the world I could be working on right now, and if you are not working on that why aren’t you?” – Aaron Swartz
I wonder if public universities can be made more efficient. Can a university reduce the time to graduate for its students? Can it reduce the total price of a degree by better allocating existing resources?
I can think of several areas where the time-to-graduate can be improved, because the existing processes haven’t been optimized for efficiency. Having spent 3 years working around the UW’s administrative systems and processes, I’ve seen how the sausage is made.
Help Students Pick Majors
- Recommend courses and majors in an intuitive, transparent way.
- Show ‘palettes’ of courses that have high information gain (entropy), which lead to recommendations about which majors are likely to be a good fit.
- Expose the ‘overlap’ and ‘similarity’ between majors. For example, Physics and Astronomy are far closer, both in terms of prerequisites and subject matter, than Physics and Music.
Help Transfer Students
- Make it clear which majors/degrees accept a lot of ‘transfer’ credits, and which ones don’t.
- Be transparent about how well transfer students do with an AA or without.
- Be transparent about which community college programs/classes lead to a fast time to graduate at a university, and which ones don’t
Make the Major Application Process Easier
- Make it clear the typical course grades, background and GPA for students who enter every major, especially the popular ones.
- Make it easy for students to find alternatives to popular majors that don’t require a lot of prerequisites to enter.
Allocate Resources Better
- Predict course and major demand ahead of time, and adjust teaching resources (and building allocations) to compensate.
- Be transparent about which courses are bottlenecks
- Do a better job of allocating building resources. Many classes aren’t given a higher enrollment limit because there isn’t a bigger room available to that department, even though larger rooms exist elsewhere.
Final note: there are data, statistical analysis, and prediction models about all of these ideas. I’m sadly not permitted to disclose any of it.