Diversity and Democracy

Improving Student Success Using Technology-Based Analytics

The mission of Arizona State University (ASU) is to provide access to a college degree for all qualified students in the Phoenix region. As a result of this mandate, ASU attracts a large and diverse freshman class: in fall 2013, ASU had 10,232 incoming first-year students, 39 percent of whom were members of racial and ethnic minority groups. The university’s focus on student success has compelled leading faculty and staff in academic affairs to find innovative ways to help students identify majors that best fit their interests so they can successfully complete their degrees. To this end, we created eAdvisor, an advising solution based on developments in computer technology and data analytics.

Focusing Students’ Exploration

Before launching eAdvisor in fall 2007, ASU organized its curriculum and majors by departments and schools. The academic catalog listed the departments and their affiliated courses in alphabetical order, from accounting to zoology, but only the rare student even attempted to read the entire catalog. This meant that students chose their academic paths with little notion of the full range of available options. They tended to follow the advice of high school counselors, parents, or friends instead of finding the best fit for their interests.

The degree search feature of eAdvisor changed how students identify majors. Using a key word search, students can enter a phrase (for example, “interested in people”), and all relevant majors will appear. Students can save these searches and compare degree requirements in various majors. For students who want to investigate a range of possible interests, ASU offers five exploratory majors—arts and humanities, social sciences, science and engineering, health, and business. Students can enroll in these majors until they have acquired forty-five credit hours, at which point they must select a more focused major.

Keeping Students on Track

Incoming students consult eAdvisor and meet with advisors (who are trained staff members) during orientation to discuss their degree choices. After students have chosen a major, eAdvisor provides a “major map” that outlines required courses and the sequence in which they must be taken. Students must take general education courses early in their academic careers, and must also enroll early in “critical requirements”—courses that diagnose their likelihood of success in the major. Before the advent of eAdvisor, students would often postpone taking the most difficult required courses, especially those with a mathematical focus. Consequently, they would run into trouble late in their degree programs, resulting in delayed graduation or even failure to graduate.

For example, a statistics course is a critical requirement for psychology majors. With eAdvisor, if a psychology major does not take statistics at the prescribed time or does poorly in the course, the student must see an advisor before he or she can register for the next semester’s courses. The advisor talks with the student to determine whether a personal issue or an inadequate fit caused the poor performance. Students who go “off track” twice for academic reasons must choose a new major, using the degree search feature to find the best fit for their skills and interests. If the poor performance stems from nonacademic concerns, advisors direct students to appropriate university resources.

Thus eAdvisor helps the advisor as well as the student. The system contains official and up-to-date requirements for each degree, and it automatically matches the courses a student has taken with the requirements of their degree to map the shortest path to completion. With eAdvisor managing these data tracking tasks, the advisor has time to focus on tasks requiring human interaction, including counseling the student and building personal understanding.

Identifying Career Opportunities

ASU recently supplemented eAdvisor’s degree search function to show career opportunities for each major. While students and parents are justifiably concerned about students’ future employability, unemployment rates among college graduates are actually much lower than for those without a degree (Carnevale and Cheah 2013, 3). Importantly, a degree in any major improves employment prospects. Moreover, ASU’s general education requirements prepare students in all majors to become life-long learners with strong communication skills, informed perspectives, and an understanding of other people.

Given that any degree improves employment prospects, it is best for students to choose their majors based on interest and talent. A good fit in these areas is more likely to lead to success and happiness. By showing students and parents the possible careers associated with each major, eAdvisor provides reassurance of a degree’s economic value and enables students to follow their dreams.

Reflecting Positive Outcomes

The eAdvisor system has been particularly effective in improving success for racial and ethnic minority students and those who are the first in their families to attend college. Figure 1 shows the percentage change in first-to-second-year retention rates after eAdvisor’s implementation, disaggregated by race and ethnicity, and figure 2 illustrates improvements in four-year graduation rates. Survey data also suggest that students are highly satisfied with eAdvisor and appreciate that it provides clear information about their progress to a degree, e-mails them messages when they are off track, and offers clear direction on their personal paths to success.

Figure 1. Change in Retention Rate After eAdvisorFigure 2. Four-Year Graduation Rates

In addition to improving student success and satisfaction, eAdvisor has saved money for both the university and its students. Because eAdvisor provides information about how many students are in each major and where they are in their progress toward the degree, ASU can manage course offerings to match need—guaranteeing that seats in required classes are available for all students while teaching fewer classes for each graduate. Ultimately, eAdvisor saves ASU between $6.5 and $6.9 million dollars in instructional costs and about $7.3 million in advising costs each year. Similarly, by leading students to graduate sooner, eAdvisor saves each student an average of $24,500, the equivalent of one year’s tuition and fees.

Finally and most importantly, ASU produces an average of one thousand additional graduates per year as a result of eAdvisor. These graduates, many of whom are members of less advantaged minority groups, are now enjoying the benefits of a college education, including the opportunity to pursue academic majors that best match their talents and interests.


Carnevale, Anthony P., and Ban Cheah. 2013. Hard Times: College Majors, Unemployment and Earnings. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Elizabeth D. Phillips is executive vice president and provost at Arizona State University.

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