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The big words at the second White House College Opportunity Day of Action, a summit for discussing ideas to increase higher education graduation rates, were data and technology.

“Now everybody understands some form of higher education is a necessity,” said President Barack Obama. “But if they are simply enrolling and not graduating or enrolling and not getting the skills they need, we are not delivering on the promise of higher education but are burdening these students” with debt.

“We should be using data and technology to identify students who may have not chosen the right major or are missing class,” Obama said.

Only 55 percent of students receive a two- or four-year degree within even six years, the National Student Clearinghouse has found, and the proportion is declining.

Related: Graduation rates are down, not up, since economic downturn

One of the approaches the president highlighted is a system at Georgia State University under which administrators have analyzed patterns in the behavior of former students to predict whether current ones are at risk of dropping out because of financial problems. The school then provides them with small grants.

Many of the summit’s speakers discussed other ways universities and colleges could use data to meet some of the goals of the summit, which included increasing graduation rates, creating better links between primary and secondary schools and higher education, and increasing the number of college graduates in science, technology, engineering, and math.

The attending institutions collectively made 600 commitments to work on programs aimed to address these goals.

Those commitments are voluntary.

In January, at an earlier first White House college summit, 100 higher-education leaders committed to making it easier for low-income students to enroll.

Data show that, in the years before they made these promises, the schools actually increased the net price paid by their poorest students faster than for the wealthier ones

Related: Colleges that pledged to help poor families have been doing the opposite, new figures show

Speakers at the followup summit implored universities and colleges to use data and technology to serve today’s students—including in their teaching practices.

“We are using 12th-century teaching techniques that won’t work for all of our students today,” said Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University. “We need super faculties enhanced by analytics and data.”

Candace Thille, assistant professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, said, “We need a robust scientific approach to understanding learning fast. We need to be collecting data at the Nano level that gives us insight into how students learn.”

And Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, suggested that professors use online course management systems to adjust courses to students’ progress. Hrabowski said this was particularly important in introductory science and math classes, which often serve as roadblocks for students interested in these fields.

Speakers also stressed the need for using data analytics to improve communication between primary and secondary schools and universities and colleges.

Public schools, community colleges and universities should be working together to track student data all the way through the “cradle-to-career” pipeline, said Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York: from gauging the readiness of kindergarteners, to the reading levels of third graders to the employment of postsecondary graduates.

Eloy Ortiz Oakley, president of Long Beach City College, said that this kind of data-sharing is already working to lower barriers students find when trying to navigate from high school to community college or from a community college to four-year universities.

Long Beach City College does this by looking at students’ high school grades instead of at admissions test scores when deciding which level of classes he or she should be placed in.

“We now focus on their transcripts,” said Oakley. “We had created barriers through these placement tests, even though we had the data to really know how they would do in college.”

Hraboski said there are limits to technology, highlighting the summit’s other goal – increasing investment in high school counselors.

“It takes a human touch along with technology,” he said. “That is especially true for low-income and black and Hispanic students.

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  1. To achieve some of these goals, the most important of which is to create a more competent citizenry, starting with the young adults leaving America’s education system, we should reconceive college. America would benefit enormously from starting college years earlier, which is common among the Commonwealth of Nations , and dividing the four years of college among secondary schools and universities (perhaps with Quebec-style colleges of general education bridging the transition between legal minority and adulthood).

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