• September 3, 2015

Fast Gainers: 4 Ways That Colleges Have Raised Graduation Rates

While many colleges have suffered declines in their graduation rates in recent years, some have increased their rates significantly. In fact, 150 colleges saw their rates rise by at least 10 percentage points between the six-year periods ending in 2003 and 2008. Four of the fastest gainers among public research institutions were San Diego State, George Mason, Georgia State, and Temple Universities.

Administrators at these and other colleges attribute their graduation-rate increases to a number of factors. While most agreed that higher admissions standards helped, they also cited new programs and organizational changes. Here are some of the strategies that universities have used to boost their graduation rates.

Focus on Likely Dropouts

With the aid of consultants, the University of Nebraska at Kearney uses computer software to analyze dropout risks—but not the typical kind. If a student has a combination of characteristics that include being far away from home, uninvolved on the campus, and a first-generation collegegoer, advisers reach out, even if the student has shown no sign of poor academic performance.

Before this advance, "we would wait until faculty would send in early-warning referrals to the main office, so at this point the student was already failing," says Ed Scantling, dean of the College of Education and chair of the university's enrollment-management council. "The goal is to get to them, and to get them seeking advising."

DePauw University focused its efforts on students who didn't join fraternities or sororities, who had a much lower retention rate than that of their peers in the Greek system. The university narrowed this gap by moving Greek recruitment to the spring semester, beginning a freshman mentoring program in which upperclass students and advisers work with all freshmen, and providing more-appealing housing options for non-Greeks. That accounted for much of the 10-point jump in DePauw's graduation rate, says Cynthia A. Babington, vice president for student services.

Build Up Advising Services

Many colleges whose graduation rates have gone up markedly in recent years have relied heavily on academic counselors and faculty advisers to give students a clearer idea of the coursework needed to earn a degree. Some gave undergraduates a list of specific courses that they should be taking each semester; others had them meet with an adviser before registering for classes.

Temple University has increased its advising staff by about 50 percent over the past five years­—it now has 85 people working with students—and is basing many retention efforts on conversations that the advisers have with students. "Academic advising essentially provided the conduit for students telling us, 'These are the things that are stopping us from getting through in six years,'" says Peter R. Jones, senior vice provost for undergraduate studies.

Involve Diverse Voices

When Stephen L. Weber became president of San Diego State University, in 1996, he started a yearlong discussion about retention that led to projects run by faculty members, administrators, and community groups. Since then the graduation rate has climbed by 17 percentage points. And enrollment management remains the top priority at the president's cabinet meetings.

The retention plan that Berea College put into place in 1997, after a year and a half of research, involves students throughout their years on the campus, from service learning to senior exit surveys. "It's more about the integration of these programs across the departments," says Stephanie P. Browner, academic vice president and dean of the faculty. "You have to have champions across campus."

Make Logistical Changes

Logistical adjustments can ease students' path toward the classes they need. At Temple a few years ago, the timing of thousands of courses overlapped because of loosely enforced scheduling rules, making it difficult for some students to come up with classes that did not conflict. When the scheduling rules were tightened, the graduation rate went up.

Many colleges among the fast gainers have created social environments that encourage graduation. Some placed freshmen in small groups that reside and take classes together, helping those students form bonds with their peers.

At the University of Maryland at College Park, each freshman gets a T-shirt bearing his or her anticipated date of graduation, which Donna Hamilton, associate provost for academic affairs and dean of undergraduate studies, thinks sends a strong message: "It's all about expectations."


1. bfenwick - December 06, 2010 at 11:18 am

This article demonstrates one of the central problems and reason why higher education has not progressed to the degree many would like or expect. The use of anecdotal examples to draw cause and effect relationships would not get a passing grade in even a freshman course. Rarely does an institution change one single thing. It is more than just poor reasoning it is dangerous as others may act on such things, spending valuable resources and fail to get the results. Surely there are examples of institutions attempting what has been suggested and not producing results. Good scholarship demands that these be included in any balanced story of how to increase graduation rates. Finally, and perhaps most disturbing, is the body of research on this topic that indicates that some of the suggestions, particularly increasing advising services, has little to no effect on graduate rates and the associated resources can be better placed.

2. 22040721 - December 06, 2010 at 12:47 pm

My institution has has done these four things, is not mentioned in the article, and has seen an increase in F-S retention rate from 63% to 79% in eight years. More anecdotal evidence, I know, but these strategies have worked for us. I don't think Ms. Ensign was conducting a scientific study, claiming to have established a cause and effect relationship, nor promising that these changes would effect a 10% growth in graduation rates. She was, I think, reporting on some institutions that are bucking a trend, and how they claim to have done it. Isn't "reporting" her job?

3. 22079340 - December 06, 2010 at 01:07 pm

Increased retention c

4. crickels - December 06, 2010 at 01:16 pm

I agree #2. This article is a great contributor to the public knowledge, but not necessarily a panacea for retention. Moreover, I doubt that the latter was the intent of the author. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I will be looking more deeply at these issues.

5. 22079340 - December 06, 2010 at 01:38 pm

Student retention should not be a goal. Rather, research suggests that increased student persistence and success are the by-product of campus environments that combine high quality teaching with comprehensive support services, and student centered academic advising programs.

Academic advisors can mediate the gap between student expectations and their experiences once on campus, which is a major contributor to attrition. These gaps include unrealistic student expectations about what is required to be academically successful, the extent to which faculty will be as engaged with students as recruitment brochures suggest they will be, and the need for institutions (i.e., instructional and administrative faculty) to take the initiative to assist students to move into college effectively.

Faculty continue to be the primary deliverers of academic advising--whether formally or informally. In my work with many of the leaders in the field of academic advising and student success (e.g., Wes Habley, Margaret "Peggy" King, Thomas Grites), we have found that the most effective academic advising model is one that transfers students from professional advisors to faculty only after students are "declared and prepared." A recent report from Tacoma Community College indicated that after they implemented this system and related services, they saw a 14% increase in the fall to fall retention rate of first time degree seeking students in 2009 from 2007.

Furthermore, my own research on two- and four-year campuses across that nation has found that most instructional faculty who advise report having had little or no professional development before undertaking their work. If faculty are to understand that academic advising is more than assisting students to pick and choose classes and feel confident and competent as advisors, institutions must provide pre-service and in-service professional development. Finally, campuses need to acknowledge that most faculty will not become fully engaged in academic advising until institutions consider academic advising by faculty as part of their recognition and reward systems.

Tom Brown
St. Helena, California

6. soc_sci_anon - December 06, 2010 at 03:16 pm

Your research suggests a different policy to me, Tom: differentiate the advising function from the faculty function. Rather than trying to train faculty how to advise students, hire professional advisors. Today's faculty are aready oversubscribed, and dumping them into a two-day workshop on "advisor training" is just going to generate resentment, not good advising. Faculty know that advising is low priority for any T & P committee, so there's no incentive for them to invest their scarce time in learning how to advice.

More to the point, why should we think that faculty make better advisors than people whose sole job is to advise? Academics are self-selected for geekiness, introversion, and other traits that make them interpersonally challenged. Why do we think that they'd make good advisors, on average? Related to this, why do we think that having faculty advise is an efficient use of their time and PhD training?

Incidentally, by advising, I don't mean advising students on their independent research projects, or giving professional advice on where to apply for graduate school in a field. Faculty are uniquely qualified for this. We're not uniquely qualified to help students learn time management, study skills, course selection, etc etc.

7. 22079340 - December 07, 2010 at 01:06 am

Dear soc_sci_anon,

Traveling most of the day and only now getting to your thoughtful response.

To quote former UC Berkeley and UT President Robert Behrdahl, "Academic advising and teaching are part of a seamless process, sharing the same intellectual sphere, informed by a consistent educational philosophy." Rather than being an addition to the work of instructional faculty, I would suggest that academic advising is an extension of classroom teaching. Harvard Professor Richard Light concluded in his book, Making the Most of College, that academic advising may be the single most underestimated characteristic of a quality educational experience.

Classroom teaching seeks to support students to increase their knowledge. Similarly, academic advising teaches students to value the learning process and to put college and lifelong learning into perspective. Like teaching, advising supports students to think critically; to acquire and practice goal setting, planning, and decision making skills they will use throughout their lives. Advising well done also encourages students to see the relationships between their academic work and their lives during and beyond college. Indeed, Light's research found students indicating that the faculty members who had the greatest impact on them were those who helped them integrate learning and make connections. Like good teaching, academic advising helps students to become effective agents for their own lifelong learning and development.

The tasks you describe as academic advising--time management, study skills--are increasingly in the purview of first-year initiatives, which, like academic advising, are reported to be among the most effective retention interventions ("What Works in Student Retention" 2004, 2010). Rather than asking what courses students need to take, however, advising helps them ask and answer "Big enough questions: "How do I want to live my life, and what can I do at this college to help me achieve this vision of my future?"

Professional advisors clearly have an important role to play, especially in supporting students to get prepared and declared prior to their being assigned to faculty advisors. However, it is usually the faculty to whom students turn for advice and guidance.

Finally, the faculty, who control the R,T&P process, should insist that their work in advising be considered as part of their campus recognition and reward systems. Given the significant responsibilities of faculty, incentives could include reassigned time, released time from committee work, and/or additional compensation.

Tom Brown

8. actlibrary - December 07, 2010 at 03:10 pm

Just to underscore what Tom Brown has said, ACT's Fourth National What Works in Student Retention study surveyed more than 1,100 institutions. Academic Advising, Learning Support, First year transition programs, and assessment/course placement were identified as the dominant retention interventions.

Wes Habley

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