01/31/2013 05:09 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2013

An Individualized Higher Education Experience

I'm not very impressed by uses of technology that make higher education less personal for our students. The more we treat a student as just a number, the farther away we are from the idea of university posited by John Henry Newman: "An Alma Mater, knowing her children one by one, not a foundry, or a mint, or a treadmill." But where technology can help us create a more individualized higher education experience, I can get excited.

At Austin Peay State University, for example, we serve more than ten thousand students every year. Forty percent of our students are adults and more than half receive the Pell Grant. More than 20 percent are active duty soldiers, veterans, or military family members. Consequently, they -- and we -- face significant challenges in helping them graduate in a timely fashion. They run the risk of becoming a casualty on the road to graduation. In view of the alarming national and state statistics about the need for more college graduates to fuel tomorrow's economy, we owe it it to our students, and ourselves, to help more of them graduate. Our challenge is to create an individualized pathway to a degree for every one of our students and to calibrate that pathway semester by semester. Our faculty and professional advisors carry the largest load in helping individual students navigate their many separate pathways to graduation, but they can certainly use help.

At Austin Peay State University, we have developed a "high touch/high tech" supplement to normal advising processes. Our Degree Compass program, created by our provost, Dr. Tristan Denley, brings the technological theory behind such services as Amazon and Netflix to bear upon the task of advising our students. Featured by articles in The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education, Degree Compass uses predictive analytics to suggest courses that not only satisfy particular degree requirements, but in which our students are more likely to be successful. Our development of Degree Compass was supported, in part, by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Complete College America. I'm very pleased to announce that Desire2Learn has recently acquired the rights to Degree Compass and the program is now available for use by institutions all over North America.

Degree Compass reduces time to degree by keeping all eyes on an individual student's pathway to a degree and by offering course suggestions designed to further each student's progress along that pathway. Course suggestions in this web-based program are tailored to the individual student's degree plan and academic talents. The program profits from new information available each semester about a student's academic performance. But it is available to provide academic advice the moment a student enrolls at our university, based on the student's performance on standardized tests like the SAT and the ACT. Through iPhone and Android apps, our students are able to access Degree Compass whenever and wherever they are.

Austin Peay has already seen significant increases in our graduation rates since we deployed Degree Compass. I'm confident it's going to be a game changer for our students and for the many other students who gain access to it through partnership Desire2Learn.