With classes set to begin this month, University of New Orleans President John Nicklow is ready to learn a lot about his new students.
A year after UNO's student head count sank to its lowest level since 1967, Nicklow is turning to a new approach in higher education that relies on mining student data to find potential signs of academic trouble and taking action to keep the students in school. It's part of an innovative push to retain more students and keep them on-track to graduation.
UNO's enrollment last fall — 8,423 students — was less than half of what it was before Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Nicklow's target is for UNO to have 12,000 students in five years, which would represent a 42 percent increase, something he's cast as "a lofty goal."
Some of that effort involves "rebranding" UNO to appeal to potential applicants who live in other parts of the country — especially in colder climates — and to draw from New Orleans' vogue as a tourism destination.
As UNO's provost, a position he held for nearly a year before being tapped in the spring to lead the Lakefront school, Nicklow used a direct-mail recruiting initiative to target a half-million students who had recently taken the ACT exam. The move, he said, put UNO on the radar of prospective applicants across the country.
Now, to hang onto more students, Nicklow is targeting smaller segments or specific demographics — like first-year or out-of-state students, or black or Hispanic students — and plans to use different strategies to help their numbers grow at UNO.
"I'm more concerned with those individual goals and strategies behind them because that's how you solve a problem," he said.
Of the 8,423 students enrolled last fall, about 77 percent — 6,511 — lived in the seven-parish New Orleans area, according to the school's statistics. About 86 percent hailed from Louisiana.
The four remaining Gulf Coast states supplied another 192 students, with Texas accounting for 65.
Nicklow sees a few opportunities in that area, like stepping up recruiting efforts in Texas, or bolstering Hispanic enrollment, which represented about 10 percent of last fall's class. Black students made up about 15 percent.
"We have not previously targeted the Hispanic population, and that's something we need to do," he said. "That goes across state lines. Yes, it's in-state, too, but we'd like to do more with Hispanic recruitment in the Houston area, the Dallas area, because No. 1, we know it's growing, and No. 2, Texas is capping enrollment (in state schools) in many places."
UNO also attracted 532 international students last fall — about 6 percent of its fall 2015 class, including 103 from India.
Much of the challenge in boosting enrollment lies in improving retention. Only about 62 percent of UNO's fall 2014 freshman class returned for their sophomore year.
An engineer by trade, Nicklow was an early convert to using predictive analytics in higher education.
The data involved include a wide range of student traits and behaviors: gender; ethnicity; whether they're an athlete; area of study; ACT scores; where they're from; what courses they've already taken and in what order. The idea is to analyze it for red flags that may indicate a student should meet with an academic adviser and adjust his or her course load.
The platform UNO uses is owned by the Education Advisory Board, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm that works to boost retention and graduation rates.
"That creates a system where we're not only able to use some really cool tools to identify who's at risk, but why are they at risk and what's the solution," said Nicklow, who believes the platform could push UNO's retention rate past 75 percent.
The service, which is being rolled out at UNO this month, is used by more than 200 schools.
The cumulative data offer a backwards glimpse at how populations of students have performed under similar circumstances, then examine certain academic indicators, said Ed Venit, senior director at the Education Advisory Board. The data can root out some of the more predictable signs of trouble, such as if a student struggles in large, required introductory courses.
Nicklow, who began using predictive analytics when he was an administrator at Southern Illinois University, said in a recent interview that he didn't know the cost to UNO for the service, only that it was "not in the hundreds of thousands of dollars." But, he said, if UNO can retain just 120 more students, that adds up to about $1 million in revenue for the cash-strapped school.
UNO's enrollment issues are not unusual in U.S. higher education, Venit said, particularly as competition grows and recent projections show that the traditional college-age population is likely to decline over the next decade.
"Across the nation, everybody's looking at their enrollments and saying, 'Wow, it's a lot harder to get students than it ever was before,' " Venit said.
The Education Advisory Board platform, which is used by about twice as many public as private schools, sifts through data on millions of students.
Xavier University is the only other local school using the platform, Venit said. But more schools are turning to it, especially as state funding has dropped nationwide and as colleges and universities have faced more scrutiny over less-than-stellar graduation rates and rising student debt loads.
"The definition of what a school is responsible for is far broader than what it was 10 years ago," Venit said.
From Nicklow's perspective, it's not a complicated problem.
"You grow the freshman class and you reduce your attrition rate for three years in a row -- then you'll grow overall," he said. "That's not rocket science. It's just looking at the pipeline issue, but we're making good progress at it overall."
Still, relying on analytics is not a silver bullet, said Joel Hartman, an early adopter of the technology at the University of Central Florida, where he's a vice president.
"Analytics is a tool, and like any tool, it has to be carefully planned, skillfully executed, and it's only a piece of the solution," said Hartman, who has worked at UCF for more than two decades. "Ultimately, student success and retention is a human problem, not a data problem. The data simply may give you an indication of how to focus your research and to have the greatest impact."
Venit acknowledged that Nicklow's target for increasing UNO's enrollment represents "a very aggressive growth" that would need to be matched by "some aggressive recruiting as well."
Still, "crazier things have happened," he added.
But drawing from his long association with Nicklow, Venit said he believes that, if anyone can do it, the first-term president is up to the task.
"It would be unusual to see a school make that kind of move in five years, but it's not completely unheard of," he said.