Using predictive analytics and an on-track graduation tool, leaders at the University of Texas at Austin are working toward the audacious goal of increasing the on-time graduation rate to 70 percent by 2017.

This month, the university's preliminary enrollment analysis revealed a four-year graduation rate of 57.7 percent — a record that puts the university closer to its goal. The freshman class of 2013 set another record with a 90.5 percent persistence rate after two years in college. That's a big deal because this class is the first to go through the university's comprehensive student success program.

"By providing them the support services that we did and the community that we did, we're showing that we're able to make a difference," said Carolyn Connerat, associate vice provost of student success initiatives at the University of Texas at Austin. "But the key is that we're able to identify them ahead of time and make sure that they get the support they need."

That's where predictive analytics comes in. A predictive analytics model looks at 12 years of student admissions and graduation data to help determine what characteristics could lead to on-time graduation, including demographic factors, transferrable high school credits, SAT scores and colleges that admit students. Based on these factors, they determine the likelihood for each incoming freshman of graduating in four years.

The students who are unlikely to graduate on time based on this model will receive extra support when they arrive on campus. For example, they join a 360 Connections small group community where students feel like they belong. In these small groups of about 20 students that meet each week, they receive peer mentoring and help with time management, among other things.

On themed weeks throughout the year, all freshmen learn about things like academic integrity, career counseling and university traditions. And to help students create a culture of graduating with their cohorts, the university runs campaigns promoting the class of 2016 or 2017, complete with their own logos and social media accounts.

But students also need to know what to do in order to graduate in four years. That's why the university created a progress-to-degree tool within the Registrar's Office that shows students where they are in the process. Other universities call this tool an early warning system, which shows students and their advisors a green bar when they are on track and a yellow bar when they are not. 

The progress-to-degree tool is based on the degree path that students have chosen and the actual credit hours that count toward the degree. Before they register for classes, students and their advisors look at this tool, and they can pull up their degree audit at any time. 

All students have an advisor through their college who works with them throughout their time at the university. And as they get closer to their senior year, they can call a graduation help desk if they can't get a class they need to graduate. The help desk staff works with them to solve the problem, whether it means adding one more student to a section or opening up a summer class. In their last year, students receive additional career counseling, alumni networking opportunities and priority support so they can graduate. 

Because on-time graduation is a priority for university leaders, the entire university staff — from the faculty to the president — are collaborating on student success to meet their graduation goal in 2017. And that's critical to making any progress on four-year graduation rates.

"The key is you have to have a university leadership who is committed to this goal of student success and improving graduation that changes the culture for the university," Connerat said. "And then you have to provide the support needed for the students, and work with the university and faculty and others to help to make sure that we change our systems."