To Graduate or Not to Graduate | Information Technology | University of Pittsburgh

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To Graduate or Not to Graduate

Every fall, thousands of Pitt students complete an application for graduation, eagerly anticipating donning their caps and gowns to receive their diploma in front of friends and family. After working hard to earn their Pitt degree, with only a single semester to go, all that remains is for their academic advisor to sign off that they have met their degree requirements.

That sounds like a simple enough task … except that it’s not. Making a graduation eligibility determination requires a lot more effort from academic advisors than most people realize. There are as many paths to graduation as there are students at Pitt. Students have endless options of majors, minors, and certificates. Some come into college with credits from high school, transferred credits from other institutions, or have received course exemptions. Determining whether a specific individual is eligible to graduate can be very complex.

The Academic Records Team in the School of Computing and Information (SCI) approached Pitt Information Technology to develop a Degree Audit Dashboard for their undergraduate programs to make the process much faster and easier.

The Current Graduation Certification Process

As it stands now, the process of confirming that students are eligible to graduate is a very manual process with an incredibly tight timeline. Students apply during the semester prior to their anticipated final term. There are only a couple of weeks between when final grades for the current term are recorded and the eligibility decisions are due to the Registrar’s Office a week into the new term. While students are relaxing and recovering between semesters, the work of the faculty and staff who are charged with the daunting task of certifying that graduation requirements have been met has only just begun.

First, the Registrar’s Office sends a bulk Academic Advising Report (AAR) to each school, a massive PDF file with the academic records for each student who has applied for graduation. The individual report for a single student can be upwards of 10 pages. Then, these PDFs must be combined with departmental records and data from other systems. Finally, each students’ progress needs to be evaluated individually to determine if they’ve met all the requirements.

At SCI, this difficult process was coordinated by Brandi Belleau, Director of Academic Records. It was a time-consuming and difficult process for the reviewers.  “It was not the most coveted role in SCI, to say the least. The reviewers have changed several times over the years because no one was particularly eager to assume this arduous task indefinitely,” Belleau explains. Belleau heard many stories of people coming in at 6:30 a.m., only to find a faculty and staff member huddled together at a conference table in front of an enormous stack of folders. The full winter break enjoyed by most faculty and staff just wasn’t possible for those tasked with making graduation eligibility decisions — the timeline was too tight.

Calling for Backup

Belleau knew there had to be better way. That’s when she began talking with Pitt IT.  She wasn’t sure what the answer was, but she had confidence that Pitt IT could help. “We need to take the ‘this is the way we’ve always done it’ mentality and throw it away. Just because something wasn’t possible before doesn’t mean it’s not possible now. I go into every room just assuming that anything can be done — I just need to ask for it,” Belleau says.

That doesn’t mean that the process of developing a Degree Audit Dashboard was simple. Belleau had several requirements that were non-negotiable. First, it needed to use the same data collection reports that Pitt already uses (PeopleSoft, Academic Advisement Report, etc.). Transitioning to entirely new systems would be too laborious. Second, the data needed to be live, so that any new information was immediately reflected. Third, the data needed to be visualized at the group and individual level to easily identify those who were clearly eligible to graduate and those who needed further investigation. Finally, the report needed to be sortable on many criteria for maximum usability.


Dashboard to the Rescue

That’s where Pitt IT Analytics came in. They had been working with the College of Business Administration already to develop a dashboard to certify graduation eligibility. The team began working closely with Belleau, the Registrar’s Office, and other Pitt IT colleagues to create a single dashboard for undergraduate SCI programs as well.

The Dashboard that was developed pulls all active students’ degree progress status into a single view. It can be filtered by everything from missing requirements to year or assigned academic advisor. Then, advisors can drill down to see detailed records of students who appear to have missed a requirement to determine the situation. The project took close to a year to get up and running, but the impact was immediately felt.

“Last December, for the first time in years, I was able to enjoy our full winter break, instead of spending much of it manually reviewing graduation requirements. It was great!” Instead of the process taking 15 or more days, they’ve now condensed it down to about a week, and hope to get it cut down to just a few days with further tweaks to the Degree Audit Dashboard.

A Whole New World

The Degree Audit Dashboard has truly changed the game for reviewing graduation requirements in SCI. The dashboard’s real-time view helps identify missing degree requirements in enough time for advisors to guide students to make schedule adjustments for their last semester in order to graduate on time.

But Belleau and her SCI team have identified many other benefits to viewing the data throughout a student’s academic journey. “If we see that there are a large percentage of students who are getting an exemption from the same requirement, then together we can re-evaluate how we are handling that requirement and why.” The larger goal of the dashboard is to see a complete picture of a student’s academic journey in ways that go far beyond just certifying their graduation eligibility.

The College of Business Administration and SCI both piloted the first Degree Audit Dashboard, and their success has encouraged other schools to look into using a similar dashboard for their programs. SCI is now moving forward with implementing it for their graduate programs, as well.

Belleau has some advice for those looking to implement a Degree Audit Dashboard. She notes that there is considerable up-front work that departments need to complete. Data needs to be electronically tracked — no dashboard can read a stack of paper files! “Working with the dashboard has a bit of a learning curve at first,” Belleau says. “It’s not, per se, more work. But it’s different work. The key is to remember that it’s worth it in the end. It will allow you to give students an almost immediate answer to the question, ‘Am I eligible to graduate?’ It will provide valuable insights into your students and their paths to graduation, and how the school can better support them.”

Belleau also encourages schools who might be interested to talk with others about their experiences. She’s happy to talk with people about implementing the dashboard and the best practices that needed to be instituted. There’s also value in talking with others about whether they have similar struggles and what data they could use to provide better student support. The solution isn’t always clear cut, but it could be closer than you think. If you are interested in adopting a Degree Audit Dashboard for your school, contact Pitt IT to see how we can help!

-- By Claudia Huggins, Pitt IT Student Blogger