Tennessee’s college-going rate has been declining since 2017 and hit a 10-year low in 2020, raising serious concerns about Tennessee reaching its Drive to 55 goal. In Hamilton County, education leaders are undertaking an innovative strategy that can help turn those numbers around and help put more students on the path to a postsecondary degree and economic independence.

A new app called DegreeU, launched by the Public Education Foundation, Chattanooga (PEF), is designed to help students not just enter college but to finish with a degree.

“What makes it unique is it fundamentally focuses on graduation. Not whether you can get in, but whether you’ll get out with a degree,” PEF Chattanooga President Dr. Dan Challener explains.

Challener highlighted the new app during an episode of SCORE’s recurring podcast, Friday’s Focus, telling listeners that it shifts the focus of the college selection process and redefines what we should consider a strong postsecondary fit — a college that matches a student’s academic potential and fits their personal needs.

“Most websites, kids put information in, and it tells them whether they can get in,” Challener says. He says DegreeU shifts the focus “from matriculation to graduation.”

DegreeU relies on a student’s academic interests, personal priorities, and financial needs to generate a list of institutions where similar students have actually earned a degree. Students answer questions about their race, gender, ACT score, and GPA, along with how far they want to travel, what high school they attended, and their ability to pay for college. Using information from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), a PEF database of outcomes for 30,000 Hamilton County students over the last 20 years, and a selectivity index developed in collaboration with OneGoal, the app provides users with a list of schools where students like them are likely to actually graduate. The list includes Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology, community colleges, and four-year universities — both in state and out of state, public and private.

PEF Chattanooga is currently testing the app with about 50 Hamilton County students and intends to broaden that to more Hamilton County students this spring. Challener envisions finetuning the app’s algorithm over time to improve the quality of the results. If progress monitoring yields positive results, Challener would like to expand the app to Tennessee students outside of Hamilton County. While DegreeU relies in part on local data, other aspects of the app are applicable to other communities or organizations that want to use data to maximize students’ chances for postsecondary success.

“We want to make sure that this works really well for students, that it is an equity lever that helps the students who don’t have parents at home to tell them about 20 different colleges,” Challener says. “We want to get it right before we scale it.”

One important factor for other communities adapting the app would be having student data like the database that Hamilton County has built over many years.

“You can use the IPEDS data — which is about all kids — and that has value,” but Challener adds that it doesn’t have the same impact as data that is specific to a given community or school district.

“Any community that wants to start down this path, really needs to start collecting data,” Challener says.

While the app is designed for students in Hamilton County public high schools, students, parents, and educators from other Tennessee communities can use the app’s postsecondary data to explore a wide range of postsecondary options.

DegreeU is the sort of innovative strategy that can help Tennessee achieve its goal of increasing the percentage of students who earn postsecondary credentials. Watch the full episode of Friday’s Focus to learn more about DegreeU and other innovative ways PEF Chattanooga is working to support students.

The web-based application is available at www.degreeu.app; the app will soon be available for download on iOS and Android.

Diane Hughes is SCORE’s communications manager.

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