How Tech Keeps College Students in School

Brian Haugabrook harnesses the power of IT to help improve graduation and retention rates at Valdosta State University

Brian Haugabrook maintains a unique insight into the IT needs of students at Valdosta State University—not too long ago, he was a student there himself.

Haugabrook attended Valdosta State for his undergraduate degree in computer science. Since graduating, he has worked for State Farm Insurance, started a small event catering company, and become the co-owner of a property-management and realty company—a role he still holds. In 2005, he headed back to the university to get his master’s degree. It was then that an opportunity arose to get involved in technology at the university.

“What I found was that higher education was not fully leveraging technology as other industries had been to maximize results,” he says. “A lot of what I saw was outdated processes and a lack of direction and efficient automation in leveraging the power. And this was an area where I felt I could make a difference.”


National graduation rate for first-time full-time students within six years


Median number of months it takes bachelor’s degree-seeking students to earn their degree


Increase in enrollment in degree-granting institutions between 2002 and 2012

As CIO of Valdosta State, one of four comprehensive universities in the University System of Georgia, Haugabrook aims to utilize analytics to create a better student experience and increase retention, progression, and graduation rates. From improving the wireless network and developing predictive algorithms to introducing resources that enhance classroom technology, Haugabrook always has a lot on his plate. It’s no wonder he begins each day at four o’clock in the morning.

“My background was in database programming and software development, and I saw a lot of opportunity to not only do what I love doing, but make a difference in people’s lives,” he says. “Most of my day is focused on improving the student experience and every day is about moving further.”

For Haugabrook, utilizing analytics is a great way to identify at-risk students in specific classes and devise intervention strategies to improve those students’ chances for success and, ultimately, graduation.

“Everything is about data today. When it comes to student success, it becomes complicated, but it really comes down to the hundreds of metrics and building models to really see what attributes and behaviors lead to student successes and failures,” he says. “It starts with academic data, looking at grade performance, looking at who that student is. A lot of what they have done in the past gives you strong predictions on what they are going to do in the future.”

For example, if the analytics show that a particular student might have trouble passing calculus, systems are in place to ensure that the student knows about the institution’s tutoring programs, that faculty members are aware so they can keep encouraging that student, and that advisors are aware so they can closely monitor the student’s progress.

“Knowing this, even before the first day of class, we can inform the student of all the support options we have, and at the end, we have increased the pass rates dramatically for those students who were likely to fail,” Haugabrook says.

“For tech response, we looked at emergency services. It’s an emergency to those who call us.”

The university also monitors events, campus restaurants, and other locations and activities that collect student attendance data through swipe cards to make sure they are adapting to the college environment successfully.

VSU has also worked to update its wireless service across campus, allowing students to access Wi-Fi on multiple devices simultaneously, along with increasing the bandwidth for a more consistent and higher quality online experience.

Another big initiative for Haugabrook’s team was working with DubLabs to release the V-State Mobile app at the end of 2015, which is able to send push notifications, allow students to register for classes, and simply keep students in the loop about school activities. “The goal is not only to provide information, but provide functionality,” Haugabrook says. “We want students to see messages from their advisors, respond to class discussion boards, and get all the information they need.”

The team has also taken a shift toward leveraging cloud services to improve agility and minimize the downtime of student services. The response time in technical support on such a large campus had become a growing concern for Haugabrook. For a solution, he looked outside of the higher-education industry.

“One of the things I encourage my team leaders to do is to think outside the box; don’t just think of higher ed,” he says. “For tech response, we looked at emergency services. It’s an emergency to those who call us, so we looked at police departments and ambulance services. They have a central dispatch center and units located strategically based on data that shows where they will most likely be needed the most.”

So now, instead of deploying tech support from one centralized location, his team uses data to strategically place individuals around campus to reduce response time to fifteen minutes for on-site technical support. The system knows where all technical staff is located, so when an IT ticket is submitted, it will deploy the nearest employee.

An upcoming initiative will help the 200,000 calls that come in from students each year looking for help. This new system will use skill-based routing of data from the phone system to create a central call center managed by support areas on campus, which will improve the hold time and abandon-rates for calls as well as simplify call procedures. The team will also implement a limited concierge-type service so students and parents are not transferred to different offices and can maintain one point of contact.

With security at the top of most industries’ lists of concerns, Haugabrook and his team are working on security metrics to help educate the users, combat the security threats, and ensure everyone is aware of the things they should and should not do.

“We want to be able to do more and, at the same time, create an agile environment where we can not only provide great technology, but we can respond to the vast changes that are happening within higher ed today,” Haugabrook says. “We look at innovation across all our teams and do what we can to make things more efficient.”