5 ways to tell students from Day One: We've got your back

Just 40% of bachelor's degree students finish their programs in four years, David Kirp notes in an article for the New York Times.

"That's bad news," he writes. Each extra year of college not only means extra costs for students and their families, but also lowers the odds that a student will ultimately graduate, Kirp reports.

He profiles two institutions that have made dramatic improvements to their graduation rates: the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) and Wayne State University. Last year, UT Austin raised its graduation rate from 61% to 66%, and university officials expect to hit 70% this year. Since 2010, Wayne State has nearly doubled its graduation rate from 26% to 47%.

Both institutions accomplished their impressive turnarounds by building a campus culture that tells students "we have your back," Kirp writes. Based on his profiles and EAB research, here are a few of the strategies UT Austin, Wayne State, and other colleges have used to build robust support networks on campus.

1: Send positive messages over the summer

One of the biggest barriers students impose on themselves is believing they're not cut out for college. Higher ed leaders can help students break a self-defeating attitude by encouraging them to see early setbacks as challenges to overcome, rather than proof of inferiority, recommends Annie Yi, a student success researcher at EAB.

As it turns out, it doesn’t take much to instill a sense of belonging that will prepare students for college life. In a recent experiment, UT Austin asked incoming students to read articles on different subjects and write reflections over the summer before matriculation. The group that read articles emphasizing growth and belonging had a credit completion gap half the size of their peers that read generic articles about the local community.

Read more: How positive messages could combat summer melt

2: Use orientation to help students build networks

Students who feel emotionally attached to peers and the institution are more likely to persist and avoid high-risk behaviors. At Colby College, incoming students participate in outdoor bonding program led by upper-level students. But students don't have to leave campus. At San Jose State University's orientation, students practice cognitive empathy through small-group discussions about diversity and identity.

Six ways colleges are rethinking orientation

3: Connect at-risk students with sources of support

The summer bridge program at Georgia State University (GSU) helps students build a support network with a cohort of peers in the program, as well as with upper-level student mentors and staff members in several support offices. To help bolster the confidence of students in the program, GSU avoids presenting it as a "required summer school" for “lagging” students—instead promoting it as a special opportunity to step gently in to the college experience and form relationships with faculty, staff, and peers.

How to create a summer bridge program that actually works

4: Make advising experiences more meaningful

As part of its campaign to raise graduation rates, Wayne State began partnering with EAB and implemented EAB's student success management system. Together, these strategies allowed advisors to have much deeper, more meaningful conversations with students, according to Monica Brockmeyer, associate provost for student success at Wayne State.

"With the right tools and extensive support for professional development of our academic advisors, we've created an atmosphere of thriving on WSU's campus—thriving for both advisors and students in which they are partnered in support of the student's journey to graduation," says Cheryl Kollin, senior director of the university advising center.

Hear directly from Wayne State: How we nearly doubled graduation rates in 6 years

5: Promote a campus culture of innovation

One key to Wayne State's success has been the fact that they were able to implement several changes within a short time, Brockmeyer explains. This created a feeling of momentum that helped the university achieve the success they've seen so far.

Wayne State is currently one of EAB's alpha partners for its Student Success Executive Partnership (SSEP), which includes several action teams working to tackle projects and barriers to student success, according to Ashlie Prioleau, an SSEP director at EAB who works closely with Wayne State. She explains that some of the team's 2017-2018 projects include a campus-wide intervention calendar to assist with coordinated campaigns, hold mitigation and adjudication, FAFSA verification support, and reducing the achievement gaps for traditionally underrepresented students.

"At Wayne State University, we've learned that there are dozens—if not hundreds—of ways that we can 'have our students' backs,'" says Brockmeyer. "In the past six years, we've completely overhauled the student experience by implementing several strategies. More importantly, in partnership with EAB, through our executive partnership, we're moving beyond individual strategies to accelerate our progress and truly 'hardwire' student success" (Kirp, New York Times, 3/5).

Learn more about EAB's student success management system

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