Fast Gainers: 4 Ways That Colleges Have Raised Graduation Rates

December 05, 2010

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."