How a Billionaire’s Surprise Gift and an Admissions Scandal Impact Higher Ed’s Use of Data

by | May 29, 2019 | Education

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Recent news from the world of higher education has been a real mixed bag. There was the feel-good story from Morehouse College, where billionaire tech investor Robert F. Smith shocked everyone with the surprise pledge in his graduation speech to pay the student debt of that school’s class of 2019.

The month before, the news was more sordid, as high-profile celebrities became the public face of a college admissions scandal. The two stories seem starkly different at first glance, but what they have in common is the fact that they shed light on the economic situations faced by students and families when it comes to higher education. These are the types of situations that colleges and universities are using data to try and manage.


396 students managed to make it through to graduation and earn their diplomas from Morehouse College this year. But that number doesn’t include the students who couldn’t afford to stay in school (and wait and hope for a billionaire to come to their rescue with a surprise announcement at graduation). A recent New York Times article reports that only 53% of full-time, first-time students finish their undergraduate studies at Morehouse within six years.

That’s why schools are starting to rely so heavily on analytics when it comes to retention. They are trying to find the right mix of data that will help them step in and keep students in school, trying to find which numbers could be the difference between a student making it to graduation or making a change after just one or two years.

Schools have plenty of data. Many schools conduct numerous surveys throughout a student’s first year – and even before they begin classes, such as during a summer orientation – to try to take a student’s “temperature” and gauge how they might fare as they begin their college years. But zeroing in on exactly what factors can help predict retention rate is something schools are still working to perfect.

Managing debt

The college admissions scandal proved in an extreme way that for some families, money is not an issue when it comes to choosing a college. (Money did prove to be a different kind of issue, as charges included paying to have SAT results adjusted in a student’s favor.) The reality is, though, that most students are going into debt to earn their college degree, and that affects their lives for years after they earn that degree.

Economic status and borrowing are also considerations when schools look at retention, but colleges and universities are working with data to help students manage their debt after graduation. Responding to surveys that asked recent graduates what worked for them, many schools are boosting up career opportunities while students are still in school, as well as mentorship programs that can help guide students towards career opportunities where they will find success.

Data also shows an increasing number of students who don’t think higher education is worth the debt they are likely to take on. Many colleges and universities are changing the way they offer classes or accept students, offering opportunities for credits that can be applied in different ways to help students earn their degrees.

New data

Students have the opportunity to dig into some data themselves. Last week the Department of Education released more detailed information about debt, with the average amount of debt incurred by graduates according to major. This is a more specific look at possible shortcomings in a college or university. The current system punishes an entire school if too many students from that school can’t repay their loans. A shift to examining an inability to repay by graduates of programs within the school could cause administrators to react differently knowing where there might be a problem. At the very least, for students, the information can give them a better idea of what kind of salary they might expect to earn by pursuing a certain major at a certain school.

Morehouse College is trying to nail down the exact number of how much debt is being relieved by Robert F. Smith’s announcement. It’s also unclear at this point which debt qualifies for repayment – whether it’s just federal lending or other loans families or students might have taken out.

One thing that is clear, though, for current students, prospective students, or higher education institutions working to help those students manage their finances: It’s a much safer bet to look at the data already being collected rather than wait to hear what a billionaire has to say in a commencement speech.

John Sucich
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