Understanding First-Year Student Success based on School and Home Background

Ntsundeni Mapatagane

As part of the Kresge Foundation (Siyaphumelela) project, the Wits University introduced a comprehensive Biographical Questionnaire on students' school and personal backgrounds, to enhance the understanding of how a student's socio-economic background would influence his/her chances of success at university level. This questionnaire collects comprehensive data on a number of variables in relation to student background including: home location; form of dwelling space; learning-enabling facilities at home and at the high school where the student matriculated; and various details of home-background information (i.e. financial affordability, family structure, educational background of family members, etc.).

The questionnaire was piloted in 2014 through a study commissioned by the Faculty of Health Sciences with the view to revising a questionnaire that would be used to collect student background data during the application process for new MBBCh students. The main purpose of that study was to establish whether the University provided rural and less advantaged students with sufficient access to the MBBCh programme. The questionnaire was then revised and reconceptualised to be rolled out to all undergraduate first-time first-year students in 2016. The aim of this project was to make it part of the online registration process, and thus collect biographical data from all first-year students from the various study programmes at Wits. These data would then be stored in the Student Information Management System together with the rest of the student information already existing in relation to student application and the registration processes. Accordingly, during the reconceptualisation of the questionnaire, all questions already existing on the application and registration forms were removed to avoid duplication of data collected. All the key stakeholders were consulted for the design of the Biographical Questionnaire, including content and platform, and an action plan for the implementation phase. The Academic Information Systems Unit (AISU) worked with the Computer and Networking Services department (CNS) to guide the development of the online Biographic Questionnaire, including the pilot testing of the tool.

The collection of first-year student biographical data began in January 2016 during registration, and a preliminary analysis has been conducted. It is envisaged that the analysis of collected data will ensure that all three universities involved in this project (Wits, the University of Venda and the University of Limpopo) develop a better understanding of student readiness in line with financial, social and academic development needs. This will enable these universities to develop bespoke interventions and mechanisms to support students in attaining success in their studies. It is envisaged that descriptive data analytics will lead to predictive analytics and the development of models to improve the universities' understanding of student success.

In addition to the biographical data of Wits first-year students, an attempt has been made to source feeder schools' data from the National Department of Basic Education. The aim of this is to link the personal and biographical data for each student with the information about the school from which they come, as well as the enrolment information contained in the Wits Student Information System. With this as a solid base for student data, it is envisaged that accumulative collection of student performance details will link directly to these categories of data. This would enable the University to conduct proper analysis which would lead to better understanding of who studies at Wits. In addition to the Education Management Information System (EMIS) national schools data, information on school fees and school educators was also sourced from the Department.

For the first time in the history of Wits an analysis on integrated student data gave an overview of where undergraduate students come from, what their level of university readiness is, and what socio-economic challenges they experience. It is believed that by developing a rich understanding of who our students are and where they come from, the University can be better prepared to meet their needs. The analysis focused on the following main questions:

1. Which programmes are the first-year students enrolled in? 

2. Which schools do they come from?

3. What home background do they come with to Wits?

4. What accommodation challenges do they face?

5. What is their family financial background?

6. How are the students receiving learner support perform academically?

The analysis provided empirical evidence on affordability patterns that affect student fees, the allocation of National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) funding, bursaries and scholarships, and possible mechanisms to manage student debt. A more detailed statistical analysis on the data is underway in an attempt to provide (accurate) predictive models which will ensure that interventions provided are evaluated per individual student’s needs.

The biographical questionnaire information revealed that the majority of participants came from highly privileged families. They largely lived in modern suburbs or urban environments; were supported by biological parents and relatives who were employed and earning salaries or qualified to take loans; came from privileged urban/semi-urban schools with reasonably adequate learning facilities; use well-coordinated and reliable transport to and from university (and did so when they were at high school); had less challenging financial difficulties regarding payment of school fees; and largely stayed off-campus while studying at Wits. There was, however, a noticeable proportion of students from rural and disadvantaged environments. The questionnaire was able to help assess the family and school background of Wits undergraduate first-year students. It has to be mentioned that data reinforced the fact that Wits has in the past consistently attracted highly privileged suburban/semi-suburban students into its undergraduate programmes. The challenge facing the University is that of ensuring that it provides necessary support for those coming from under-privileged backgrounds, while understanding that the calibre of students enrolled at Wits remains at the top end of those any University can acquire from the South African society and schooling system.

Collection of the student biographic information is continuing as part of the student registration process.