Emily Hatton, senior staff writer
For decades, the most important higher education priority in America was seen as access—the goal of getting students into college.
And access remains an important issue. Just see President Obama's proposed America's College Promise plan, intended to provide free community college to anyone who needs it.
But educators and leaders increasingly are pivoting to a new priority: completion. In 2009, Obama said he wanted America to be the nation with the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020—but only 59% of students at four-year institutions graduate within six years, and that rate falls to just 39% for two-year colleges.
The pivot in focus came about for multiple reasons, says Mel Schiavelli, executive VP of Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC). While there is the altruistic motivation, there is also the fact that government funding is increasingly tied to performance—and institutions are increasingly reliant on tuition revenue. If a student stops enrolling, those dollars are gone.
"Up until the Great Recession, there was a steady supply of students coming in to higher education ... Now it's a critical issue that schools understand that the only way they're going to survive is to ensure that they've got continuing revenue streams," says Rick Sluder, vice provost for student success at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU).
"It's cheaper to keep a student than it is to recruit them, there's no doubt about that," he adds.
Roadblocks to graduation
There is another reason to keep students in college: over the long-term, people with some college do not do much better in the job market than people who never attended at all.
"Almost the worst case scenario is to in fact encourage kids and get them into college, get them to the point that they have any debt at all, and then they not finish. That is really a worst-case scenario, rather not having them start college at all," says Joann Boughman, University Systems of Maryland's (USM) senior vice chancellor for academic affairs.
In fact, individuals who default on student loans usually carry a below-average amount of debt, according to a survey by the National Center for Education Statistics. The data can be best understood in terms of completion: the larger predictor of default is not the value of a person's outstanding loans but whether they completed their degree, says New America's Clare McCann.
Washington Post: How one school tracked—and retained—likely drop-outs
The reasons that students are lost along the way are complicated. There is no one simple solution.
"Life happens," Boughman says.
According to student success leaders, several common factors include "toxic combinations" of courses, an influx of first-generation students, and a lack of guidance.
Often, students enroll without a career path in mind and end up taking way more credits than they actually need, Schiavelli says.
Clearing the path to completion
At NVCC, staff are focused on invasive advising and mentoring, Schiavelli says.
NVCC also implemented mandatory orientation, on-time registration, and first semester developmental courses for students who place into them.
This aims to keep students engaged over the summer, buying textbooks, applying for financial aid, and ensuring they "show up ready to play" come class time, he says.
About 8,000 to 9,000 first-time students receive intensive face-to-face advising. And about 3,000 to 4,000 enter the "Pathways to Baccalaureate" program that pairs high school students with counselors who work with them all the way from junior and senior year, through NVCC and to a transfer to George Mason University (GMU), where they frequently perform better than traditional GMU students.
Although the program has been successful, it is also very expensive, so NVCC is now looking for tools to help students guide themselves through the process, as well as how to tailor advising for veterans and adult learners, Schiavelli says.
Just across the Potomac River in Maryland, administrators and faculty in USM use a mix of big data and anecdotal observations to guide their retention efforts, Boughman says. Data analysis pinpoint mixtures of courses that—when taken simultaneously—often lead students into academic trouble. Now, counselors can suggest students wait until the next semester to take a few.
Big data also helped bolster staff support for student success programs. "Faculty are bright people and they believe in evidence," Boughman says.
The institution also focuses on increasing student engagement—anecdotally they found that students involved in any campus organization are more likely to succeed—as well as on course redesign, tutoring, and advising.
Meanwhile, at MTSU, Sluder pared down the dozens of student success efforts to four main initiatives in order to properly implement them. Like USM and NVCC, they focus on course redesign, tutoring, and advising. He also sends regular enrollment metric updates to faculty to update staff on what is working and what is not.
Related: 40% of students don't open emails from their academic advisors. Learn about a better way to reach them.
He estimates 390 students retained from spring to fall due to these efforts, resulting in about $1.5 million in revenue.
A matter of time
"As excited as we all are about this, one thing that we sincerely believe is that it's better to do it right than fast," Boughman says.
"The moment you do something quickly and with holes in the strategy and it fails, not only does that strategy fail, but then those who are reluctant to change are going to become even more reluctant to change," she says.
But these changes do need to come, says Sluder. "These [retention initiatives] are fundamentals. These aren't higher order business models. They aren't way out on the edge. These are just core best practices."
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