Degree-Planning Tools Chart Individual Paths for Student Success

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picture of hand holding a compass

I remember staring at a list of courses en route to my bachelor’s degree: prerequisites, required courses, electives, and general education credits. It was a Rubik’s cube of many possible combinations that would get me to one place.

Or so I thought.

In reality, the path I chose was more prescriptive than individualized. That static list of courses didn’t ‘know,’ for example, how to fit chamber choir or Romantic literature into a journalism major, let alone a required minor. Or how my internships could be represented within my degree program as more than a checked box. Or that I was a Pell grant recipient who was allotted work-study options that could potentially enrich my education. And it certainly didn’t offer me a head’s up when college algebra was about to become the bane of my existence. (I’m still a little bitter about that one.)

That list was analog and binary; it was a simple, stark yes/no, pass/fail in a world where background information and context truly matter. The truth was that the path could have taken many turns, but I, like many others, had a narrower view of it. Yet this is what we and our academic advisors had to rely on. This, and intuition.

Change a few details in the above story, and I’m almost certain you can see a reflection of yourself within it.

The truth is, higher education hasn’t only rewarded the high achievers; as an institution, it has historically rewarded the dot-connectors. Those who have been able to see the bigger picture, strategically planning from point A to point Z in order to to get an education coupled with the most relevant experience. And how to translate all of those extracurricular-yet-worthwhile activities into a cohesive, holistic whole — something not only marketable to future employers but aligned with a student’s own personal goals and values.

Here’s the thing: you no longer need to be an expert dot-connector to see the bigger picture anymore. College as we know it has changed quietly, but in a very significant way. The recent ELI brief, 7 Things You Should Know About Degree-Planning Tools, reveals how.

In it, we learn that a new generation of students at some higher ed institutions are designing their own college experience. They’re accomplishing this both with the help of advisors and independently. They’re calling up information that will serve them from a variety of perspectives — be it academic, professional, personal, or financial — and an intelligent tool is guiding them and adapting to their strengths, preferences, and circumstances.

That’s right: adaptive degree planning has arrived and it’s making a big difference. The brief mentions major players like Blackboard, which has MyEdu, Ellucian’s MyDegree, and a tool called Degree Compass, which was developed at Tennessee’s Austin Peay State University and was acquired by Desire2Learn. Austin Community College has also seen success with the use of Civitas Learning’s Degree Map™; you can read all about it in this recent NGLC blog post.

If you compare them to the degree audit tools of yesteryear, the experience might be akin to playing Atari vs. PlayStation 4. Data and modeling provide a variety of benefits:

  1. Saving students money and time, empowering them to discover relevant courses and learning experiences along their individualized path.
  2. Connecting the dots between a student’s end goal and his or her academic career, aligning the path to a degree with complementary experiences suited to specific needs and interests.
  3. Predicting best courses for a student’s individual success. Imagine what your class schedule might’ve looked like if you could have predicted the courses in which you were most likely to earn an above-average grade.

Additionally, students are now able to plan using tools designed for multiple purposes; for example, for those to whom time or financial resources are a constraint, it is possible to see the shortest path to a degree. For those with very specific professional goals, a degree planning tool could reveal the types of extracurricular and internship experiences that would augment academic courses, which would not otherwise appear using a typical degree-audit tool.

The tools can incorporate both quantitative and qualitative attributes, such as students’ SAT scores and other grading information upon entry to college, as well as information about their personal journeys, such as whether they are first-generation college students.

Another critical feature of degree-planning tools are the addition of early alerts and self-help tools that serve to lighten advisors’ loads without compromising individual attention to students’ needs and changing academic circumstances.

“Degree-planning tools could offer a menu of more than coursework, directing students toward learning paths that include field study, self-directed projects, or on-the-job experience.”

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Kristi DePaul of Founders Marketing provides editorial support and regular contributions to the Transforming Higher Ed column of EDUCAUSE Review on issues of teaching, learning, and edtech.