Bracket Busting: March Madness with a Student Success Twist

By Martha Snyder -

One day in and March Madness has ensued, already proving why it is one of the best sports events of the year. Filling out the bracket. Pulling for the underdog. Buzzer beaters. The nearly 10 years of a spotless record against my dear husband. I love it all.

Of course, being an education policy wonk (aka geek) I also can’t help but question all the madness and wonder, what would it look like if these schools competed against each other on how well they serve students, particularly students typically underserved by colleges and universities? What if we looked beyond the hype of sports to the real mission of colleges: helping students to pursue and attain a college degree?

Well, partly because I can’t help myself, and partly because my basketball-driven bracket didn’t do so well on day one, I set out to answer this question. Of course, just like filling out an actual bracket, it’s easier said then done. There are all kinds of variables to weigh and consider. If you played the chalk based only on graduation rates you would end up with schools like Harvard and Duke in a buzzer beater final. But, that doesn’t account for important elements like selectivity and equity in access , i.e. who the colleges serve. But then again, if you ranked colleges simply based on factors like percent of minority students or percent of low-income, you would miss the importance of how well colleges do helping those students complete. So, with the help of some likeminded office-mates, I built an equity and student success index and score. The score then becomes a relative way of determining which school wins a head-to-head competition. Each school’s score incorporates the following elements: gap in access, using percentage of minority students vs. non-minority; percent of low-income students served, using data on Pell recipients; gaps in graduation rates; and overall graduation rates.

Of course, with every one-and-done tournament the difference between winning and losing is often a matter of a few inches and a couple of seconds. By altering the formula I’ve created and changing the weights, one could come up with different outcomes than how my bracket played out here. This particular bracket weights completion – overall graduation and gap between student groups at about 55 percent combined; and access – percent of Pell and enrollment gap between student groups at approximately 45 percent.

If you like to root for the underdog, you will love how this bracket plays out. In this student success bracket, Kentucky’s dreams of a perfect season would fade in the first round.

The final four of equity and student success has some unexpected “Cinderella” teams. SUNY-Albany squeaks past powerhouse UCLA, to get to the final. Georgia State slightly outscores Hampton and is ultimately victorious – claiming the highly coveted Equity & Student Success Title. A quick look at the data on the road to the Championship shows:

1) Clutch performers (Negative Access & Completion Gaps): In this case, negative is positive. Negative access means a college enrolls a larger percentage of minority students than non-minority. In the case of Hampton and Georgia State, these schools also have a higher graduation rate for these students than that for non-minority students. They are the only two schools in the entire round of 64 with this combination. (SUNY Albany has a slightly negative completion gap but has larger, positive access gap)
2) Blue chip talent (Low-income students): Only Georgia State has at least 50 percent of its students receiving a Pell Grant, though all four have more than 30 percent.
3) Traditional Powerhouse (Overall Graduation Rate): This is where UCLA dominates, with an overall graduation rate of over 90 percent.
4) Fundamentally Strong (Consistency across measures) : SUNY-Albany and UC-Irvine make their runs with consistent performance across all measures.

Like any bracket, I’m sure this one is not perfect. You could argue for a different level of analysis, index, weighting structure, or set of metrics. But, perhaps looking at the data can start some interesting conversations around where we should focus the energy or “Madness” in higher education.

You can check out the bracket, index and data here.

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