How one university nearly doubled their graduation rate in 6 years

In recent years, Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan has seen incredible gains in student retention.

Wayne State's associate provost for student success, Monica Brockmeyer, recently shared with the EAB Daily Briefing her story of how Wayne State nearly doubled its graduation rate in the past six years.

The road to that impressive statistic wasn't easy, she says. In fact, before their journey began, some at Wayne State doubted whether improving student outcomes would even be possible.

Wayne State's students face a range of challenges. Many of them have multiple jobs, says Brockmeyer. Around half of them don't get financial support from their families. Some come from a nearby school district that has faced a severe lack of funding.

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In 2010, Wayne State's graduation rate stood at around 26% and falling. Enrollment was also falling. Several senior administrators came and went.

The city of Detroit itself had fallen on hard times, too. Around that time, Detroit had become the largest city in the United States to declare bankruptcy. On top of that, the city grappled with long-standing challenges of poverty, education, and inequality that persist today.

The circumstances had grown so dire that the then-Secretary of Education called Detroit "ground zero for education."

There's an advantage to hitting rock bottom, Brockmeyer says. There's nowhere to go but up.

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The situation made it clear that Wayne State needed to re-focus on student success, she shares. That realization enabled her to win support for a major re-allocation of resources to support several initiatives.

Wayne State hired 45 academic advisors. Brockmeyer explains that the dramatic change in advisor-to-student ratios allowed advisors to have deeper, more personal discussions with students. This helped the administration better understand students' experiences and challenges.

The momentum created a culture of innovation. In addition to hiring more advisors, Wayne State leaders:

Graduation rates began to improve. Wayne State leaders set a goal to achieve a 50% graduation rate—nearly double what it was previously—by 2021.

They're nearly there. The graduation rate stands at 47%, and outcomes for first-generation students, Pell Grant recipients, and black students have also improved.

Also see: What success means to your students, in their own words

Wayne State's provost, Keith E. Whitfield, emphasizes that these gains were possible because of campus-wide collaboration and a shared sense of mission.

"The gains we have made are due to institutional leadership, vision, and dedication to our students," Whitfield says. The effort has been supported by stakeholders at every level, "from our president's tireless commitment to focusing and bringing resources to this mission, to our faculty and staff's commitment to coming together as an institution to support student success initiatives."

Whitfield adds that other contributing factors have been the institution's "use of data and tireless pursuit of improvement in student success and the student experience."

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Brockmeyer points to Wayne State's students as her source of motivation. They have grit. They face their challenges with grace and humility, she says, and they inspire her to keep going when change seems impossible.

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