How Picking College Courses Is Getting More Like Finding A Movie On Netflix

Students using Degree Compass see a five-star rating system for classes required to get their degree and for electives. Credit: Desire2Learn

Students using Degree Compass see a five-star rating system for classes required to get their degree and for electives. Credit: Desire2Learn

The same kind of technology that recommends movies on Netflix or purchases on Amazon is now helping students on several Tennessee campuses choose college courses. A new program developed at Austin Peay State University uses predictive analytics to suggest classes. And now the technology is spreading across the country, seen as a way to make higher education more efficient.

It’s the lunch hour at Nashville State Community College. Students snack on chips as they cram for finals. But many may be wasting their time. On average, graduates take nearly a years-worth of classes they could have done without, or they drop courses before making a bad grade. For student Jonathan Hudspeth, it was anatomy and physiology.

“It just wasn’t for me,” Hudspeth says. “The terminology was too big. You had to remember how to spell it. It just wasn’t my area of what I wanted to do.”

Perhaps it would have been best to navigate around the class altogether. That’s what a program aptly-named Degree Compass is designed to do.

Tyler Milton is studying nutrition at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville. She logs on to see a list of courses. Some have five stars beside them. Others have one or two.

“If I’m stuck between choosing between intro to philosophy and intro to ethics, I can come here and see intro to philosophy would be a better choice,” Milton says.

Turning Heads

It sounds like straightforward advice, but the outcomes have turned heads – from the White House to Bill Gates, whose foundation pitched in start-up funding.

“The early results at Austin Peay have been promising,” Gates reported at an event in 2012. “Students do half a letter grade better in classes suggested by Degree Compass than in classes they pick the old fashion way.”

And perhaps more importantly, minority and low-income students – who tend to have a harder time finishing a degree – experience an even bigger boost.

Until this year, Tristan Denley was the provost at Austin Peay State University. He's now a vice chancellor with the Tennessee Board of Regents, which now has half a dozen campuses using Degree Compass. Credit: Blake Farmer / WPLN

Until this year, Tristan Denley was the provost at Austin Peay State University. He’s now a vice chancellor with the Tennessee Board of Regents, which now has half a dozen campuses using Degree Compass. Credit: Blake Farmer / WPLN

But how does it know what classes will be a better fit?

“What it does is take all of the grades for all of the students who have been at that institution for the last say half a dozen years, then takes your academic grades and then combines those to be able to make estimates for how you would do if you took each of these classes,” says mathematician Tristan Denley, now an executive with the Tennessee Board of Regents. “The thing is the predictions are pretty accurate, like within half a letter grade.”

Yes, with this program, a student can basically see what grade he or she will make in advance.

“Now hold up,” some people have told Denley. College isn’t about finding the easiest path or avoiding the hardest professors. It’s about broadening horizons and facing challenges? Denley agrees, in part.

“But there is a real sense in which academic curiosity is a luxury that lots of people simply cannot afford,” he says.

Good For Students, Good For Schools

Kiya Jordan of Nashville went back to school for an associates degree in health care coding.

“I ended up taking basically – when it was all said and done – a whole year of classes that wasn’t needed,” she says. “It’s frustrating. It’s disappointing.”

Jordan says if her scholarship runs out early, she won’t be able to pay her own way to finish.

Floundering students can be a headache for institutions too, who are increasingly scrutinized for their graduation rates.

A Canadian data company called Desire2Learn – which already works with dozens of universities around the globe – has licensed Degree Compass for its profit potential. Austin Peay inked a deal to receive 20 percent of the royalties.

Desire2Learn CEO John Baker won’t say exactly how much he’s charging colleges, but he says the program could end up paying for itself.

“We know as more students complete and attain the results they’re looking for, the universities see more revenue coming into the university,” Baker says. “And what we’re trying to do with this technology is making it affordable.”

And like that, picking college courses becomes the latest choice where computers seem to know us better than we know ourselves.

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