The SAGE approach to helping students succeed

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.


Mike Martineau, director of Institutional Analysis, is leading a project called SAGE that consists of a proactive and responsive technology platform driven by machine learning to help students stay on track to graduate. It’s an exciting idea with real potential to make a difference in degree completion. Recorded on Thursday, July 27, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams and Dave White for technical assistance. Music by Taylor Hartley.


President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising podcast where you get to meet some of the people who are helping us do great things at the U. I'm Ruth Watkins, president of the University of Utah, and my guest today is Mike Martineau. Mike is the director of institutional analysis. And he's the leader of a very exciting project. Welcome, Mike, glad to have you here!

Mike Martineau: Thank you, so thrilled to be here and talk about how we use technology to help students.

President Watkins: Well, that's a great segue. One of the things you do is that you've been leading a project that we call SAGE. This was one of the local finalists for the 2020 American Dream Ideas Challenge. That's a big deal because it's a very competitive effort and really designed to help Utahns achieve a middle income. Tell us a little bit about SAGE, Mike.

Mike Martineau: Yeah, you bet. SAGE is a technology solution that changes the trajectory of students' lives through degree completion. We're essentially looking at three main issues that are behind degree completion. First is this educational investment. The investment in education is only fully realized if, and only if, the degree is reached. And so if a student progresses 70% towards a degree, that doesn't grant them 70% of the earnings power the degree holds.

The second piece is students leave frustratingly close to finishing their degree for a variety of reasons. And lastly, there's also this gap between student support services that universities offer and resources and the students knowing how and when to connect with these resources. It's a bit of the 80/20 problem that exists out there of about 80% of our resources are consumed by probably 20% of our students, unfortunately.

Our idea is a proactive and responsive technology platform driven by machine learning, which both helps current students stay on track to graduate and provides those who have already left a clear path to re-enrolling and earning a degree.

SAGE is a collaborative effort across multiple key people and offices. In recent years, a few of us have been deeply involved in the student success experience efforts. So when we decided to make a pitch with the American Dream Challenge, we knew just who we wanted on our team. And I'd love to talk about them. Our SAGE team includes Jim Agutter, assistant dean of undergraduate studies and faculty in architecture and planning; Amy Bergerson, associate dean and director of the Office of Student Success and Empowerment; and Martha Bradley, who is our senior associate vice president of academic affairs and dean of undergraduate studies. We've had significant help from our advising community as well, which is also key to this project. So, Beth Howard, who is associate dean of the University of Utah Academic Advising Center, has helped us. We have really great help from University Information Technology—Rachael Sheedy and Brandon Gresham—has helped us tremendously. And then also some colleagues of mine in our Office of Institutional Analysis—Liz Conder, our reporting manager, and also Amanda May, our research analyst—really helped form this collaborative team.

And with this team we've been not only able to identify significant barriers for students, but also craft this amazing and innovative approach to degree completion.

President Watkins: I think it's amazing that there are so many people at the University of Utah focused on college completion from so many different offices. One of the really powerful elements of SAGE is how you are bringing this expertise together. And it's quite unique. What many of our listeners may not realize is that getting into college is not the biggest barrier for people, instead, it's completing college. And this is a national challenge.

Every year, millions of people enter and do not complete their degrees. We know in Utah alone, there are more than 400,000 adults who started college, but did not complete the credential they came for. And as you've pointed out, that has a powerful, negative consequence for many people. We want to change that trajectory. Tell us more about how this team comes together to make SAGE a success and how SAGE would work when everybody works together toward this goal.

Mike Martineau: Yeah. Can you believe that? About one in four adults in Utah have some college, but no degree, earning well below their potential. And the data shows that those with a degree on average earn about $20,000 more than those who don't have a degree. And that gap is increasing, let alone the effects of different unemployment levels during economic cycles.

So, overwhelmingly, the research shows that students don't leave because of one thing. They leave because small thing after small thing have accumulated into something insurmountable. And many colleges and universities now nationwide have that feeling that they were built for the 18-to 22-year-old population with few other life responsibilities, which is far from today's student and the reality of today's student.

And so first SAGE integrates multiple data points from different university systems, assembling a holistic picture of the student, and then works to proactively remove root cause roadblocks, communicates with the student in a manner personal to them and their circumstances.

We've all seen this technology that is meant to act like a nudge, but feels a little more like a nag, right? A couple weeks ago, I got an email reminder about my car registration, which immediately sets my mind spinning. Okay, I've got to schedule an appointment to go and get the service and go do the registration, do all that.

Instead, SAGE works to find barriers and actively remove them for students when possible, all without the student having to ask. So, we talk about this “Sydney” example. We named her Sydney, a sophomore in biology who's progressing through her course studies, but gets sick during fall semester when she's actually supposed to be registering for spring semester. Well, you know how this goes. She got the email reminders and she kept putting it off. And then when she got better, she went to register. But the class she needed at the time that worked for her work schedule is full.

So, like many students, she said, "No big deal. I'll just take the spring semester off. I'll return." And you know how this goes, this is how we end up with so many students who leave without getting back into their degree and finishing what they started after. So, what if our approach says instead of just an email reminder to do something, what if Sydney got a text that said, "Sydney, we noticed that you still haven't registered for spring. And there's this biology class you need. We found a time that works for you. And we added it to your cart, saving your spot, click here to confirm your enrollment." So that small change in approach of how universities engage with their students will make all the difference in the world for many of these students.

President Watkins: What a powerful example, Mike, because what SAGE is really doing is using data from multiple parts of the university to automate solutions for students, as opposed to requiring the student to understand the problem, know the right path and take a proactive action. I love this idea. I think it will be very powerful. Is there any evidence that this kind of approach works?

Mike Martineau: Yeah, there are a few different areas that we've looked into. First, there's this really, really interesting area of research of students that my colleague Amanda May discovered that talks about help-seeking behaviors of different students. And so as you can imagine, a lot of different students from different backgrounds and different circumstances have different engagement points. And sometimes they just don't know where to go for help or don't know where to ask or who to ask.

And so there's tremendous research showing the effectiveness of using technology to engage those populations, especially now. It's an equalizer among all the different students from various backgrounds that we serve here. So, this help-seeking behavior is really aided by technology. So that's thing one.

The second thing is, there's tremendous evidence of leveraging technology for custom advising and program planning. This comes from the City University of New York system in looking at, they have a program called I-PASS, which shows tremendous evidence for this. And so what we've done is we're connecting the technology piece with the scalable piece for the university, as well as the custom approach for students to really make this work for all students, regardless of background, regardless of circumstance, to really help these current students, as well as students who have left, re-engage with the university and finish their degree.

President Watkins: I think it's brilliant. Can the students receive these messages from SAGE through their phones, for example, given that that is the ubiquitous technology that we think most people use? Or how would a student receive sort of the insight and input that's coming from SAGE?

Mike Martineau: Yeah, that's a great question. The research shows us two things. Students utilize resources based on two things, convenience and proximity. And what is something you always have with you, students always have with them, by and large, I bet it's on your desk right now, president, your phone. And so, that's right.

We're leveraging this platform through texts, all through texts. So students can not only receive these messages personal to them via text, but also they can reach out to SAGE in the virtual guidance system and ask SAGE 24/7, any questions that they have. If they're wondering about their financial aid at 11 o'clock at night, they don't have to wait until the next day and call during business hours. They can text SAGE for automated help and automated responses.

President Watkins: It's really quite amazing. I think technology is the tool. The insights that come together in SAGE are coming from both large-scale data and analytics and human expertise coming from advisors and institutional analysts and many elements of what we know changes students' lives.

SAGE was one of the four local finalists in the American Dream Ideas Challenge. Unfortunately, it wasn't selected to pitch in the final round. But this idea is too good to stop. This is such important work, powerful, timely. How do we press forward with this idea? And let's issue a little call here for helpers and interested partners who might want to be part of making something pretty great happen here. Tell me about what's happening with SAGE right now.

Mike Martineau: That's right. We'd love to have all the help we can get. So, with some funding from the first two rounds of the American Dream project, our team is currently planning some small-scale automation interventions with certain populations of students, some focus group feedback sessions that have been a little bit derailed by COVID, but we're pivoting to technology now. And then of course piloting this virtual guide, similar to a chat bot, for students coming in right now. We've started first by leveraging the incredible work from our academic advisors across campus, as well as our really terrific student success advocates who interact with the students who know them one by one. And so we'll be having some small-scale pilots and really quick iterations of these approaches.

President Watkins: That is fabulous. I think one of the things that COVID-19 has shown all of us is that there has never been a more important time to stay in school and finish your degree or come back to school and finish a post-secondary credential. The individuals displaced through the pandemic, the first people back to work, tend to be people who have a degree, or even a postgraduate baccalaureate degree.

So, we want to help you Utahns succeed. And that's what SAGE will do. Mike, thank you so much for your work at the University of Utah. And thanks for being my guest today. It's been great to talk with you.

Listeners, thank you so much for being part of the U Rising podcast. And I hope you'll listen again to the next episode. Thank you.