Business challenge

With student attrition rates on the rise across the United States, how could the University of Florida empower even more of its students to keep themselves on track for successful graduation?


The university’s analytics team knew that data on student behavior could hold the key to retention, and used IBM Cognos Analytics to turn data into actionable insight for faculty and administrators.



faculty members to identify at-risk students and provide additional support


the potential to create targeted programs to boost retention and graduation rates


key metrics that help the university rank among the top 10 US public schools

Business challenge story

Keeping students in college

Student attrition rates are high in universities across the US: one recent study shows that only 54.8 percent of students complete their degree within six years. The University of Florida (UF) is on a mission to combat this trend, helping more students complete their courses of study and strengthening the university’s reputation for academic excellence.

“Our goal at the University of Florida is to ensure that students reach their full potential so they can build a bright future for themselves and their families,” explained Dave Gruber, UF’s associate chief information officer. “To do this, we not only focus on keeping students enrolled in their courses, but on helping them succeed throughout their time at the University of Florida.”

Like most institutions, UF has access to large amounts of student data, including demographic data, previous high school grades and current course grades. With the rise of online learning systems, it also has access to new sources of data, including details on each students’ study habits. For example, it is now possible to monitor how long students spend watching video lectures, reading course literature, and working on assignments.

The university’s analytics team realized that combining all these sources of information might reveal patterns and insights that would hold the key to keeping students in college and helping them achieve their full potential.

“We knew that we could make much better use of the data we have,” Gruber continued. “For instance, if we can identify which students are falling behind, we can make earlier, more targeted interventions to get them back on track. The sooner we can tell that a student needs support, the better the chances that we can keep them engaged and help them progress.”

To help all university departments make data-driven decisions to improve student outcomes, the University of Florida decided it needed to make information more easily available to a wider audience of users.

“Our existing analytics platform focused on supporting users in finance and HR—who are naturally ‘data people,’” said Gruber. “We wanted to make it more approachable for administrators and faculty by providing a more modern, intuitive interface.”

In some cases, users had already started using modern data visualization tools to gain insight into their data at the departmental level—but the university knew that a more centralized approach would be a better long-term strategy.

“The complexity of managing information security and data privacy is growing year-on-year,” explained Gruber. “Analyzing and visualizing information is only half the problem; we also need a robust data governance framework to protect the university against regulatory and reputational risks. That means an enterprise-class platform is the only way to go.”

Insights from IBM Cognos Analytics should enable us to implement more effective policies across the university. By helping us identify which students are at risk, it should help us intervene earlier and more effectively.

Dave Gruber, Associate CIO, University of Florida

Transformation story

Gearing up for academic attainment

To help academic and administrative staff at the university gain a clearer picture of student progression, the University of Florida evolved its data analysis and visualization functions by upgrading to IBM® Cognos® Analytics.

“We have used IBM Cognos solutions to support our human resources and finance functions for over a decade, so we were confident in the data governance aspect of the platform,” said Gruber. “Nevertheless, we were considering moving away from Cognos Business Intelligence because we didn’t think it could meet our needs as a modern enterprise visualization platform.

“When we saw the new version of IBM Cognos Analytics, it changed our perception completely. It gives users so much more power on the front end, with an intuitive interface, new self-service features, and much more advanced visualizations.”

The University of Florida also uses IBM InfoSphere® DataStage® to extract, transfer and load data from multiple sources into IBM Cognos Analytics, as well as IBM SPSS® Modeler to support data modeling and predictive analytics. Combined, these solutions enable the university to enhance its insight into student progression.

Gruber said, “We haven’t yet rolled out our student progression monitoring solution to all areas of the university, but we’ve achieved a number of important early wins. For example, we have been working on some dashboards that aggregate different types of information, such as students’ academic records and study patterns, and can help us identify when and why a student may be struggling with a particular course.

“The potential for this solution is vast; there’s just so much data we could use to dig even deeper into the causes of attrition and low academic attainment. For instance, we could look at data from our online learning platform to see which students have read which chapters of a textbook, and assess how those reading habits impact their attainment on course modules. With IBM Cognos Analytics powering our data analysis, we can explore these types of possibilities with ease.”

The difference with Cognos Analytics is the power that it gives to users on the front end, with an intuitive interface, new self-service features, and much more advanced visualizations.

Dave Gruber, Associate CIO, University of Florida

Results story

Guiding students to great opportunities

By gaining insight into the factors that help students achieve better grades, the University of Florida will be better prepared to direct its resources strategically and empower students to succeed.

Over the next calendar year, the university will be rolling out its upgraded analytics capabilities on a department-by-department basis.

“Insights from IBM Cognos Analytics should enable us to implement more effective policies across the university,” said Gruber. “By helping us identify which students are at risk, it should help us intervene earlier and more effectively.”

With more detailed insights into students’ study habits and personal circumstances, it should even be possible to tailor these interventions on a student-by-student basis and offer personalized support.

“By focusing on helping individual students progress, the whole university will ultimately benefit,” Gruber commented. “We’re currently ranked among the top 10 public schools in the country, and if we can lift our student retention and graduation rates, we’ll be in a strong position to maintain or improve that ranking.”

In addition to student achievement, the University of Florida also anticipates that the IBM solution will also help the enrollment, admissions, human resources and finance departments enhance their operations.

Gruber concluded, “With IBM Cognos Analytics empowering us to make smarter decisions on how to run each aspect of university life, we will be better placed to direct our resources to give every student the best chance to achieve their full potential.”

University of Florida logo.

University of Florida

Founded in Gainesville in 1853, the University of Florida is among the nation's most comprehensive and academically diverse universities, and has been ranked in the country’s top ten public universities by U.S. News & World Report. The university employs over 5,000 people and offers a wide range of academic and athletic programs to more than 55,000 students.

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