Students make mistakes in their academic planning, but you can get them back on track

Best practice from the Academic Affairs Forum

Graduation delays often result from preventable academic missteps made early in a student’s career. Many universities do not have the advising resources necessary to meet face to face with students each semester and ensure that they are taking the shortest path to their degree. Students who fall behind are forced to extend their stay in college, leading to frustration, adding to total cost, and decreasing the odds that they will stay in school long enough to finish.

To improve timely graduation, some schools are mandating that all departments provide students with clear semester-by-semester guides to degree completion. These “degree maps” show students the proper timing and progression of required major and general education courses. Students are encouraged to fulfill major and general education requirements early, allowing flexibility later for a semester abroad or a double major. Degree maps can be made the centerpiece of an advising conversation or they can help students self-advise in the absence of a face-to-face meeting.

Publish all degree maps in a common format on a central website to allow for ease of student use. At the University of Florida and Florida State University, all degree maps are collected together in a common format hosted on the website of the university registrar. The centralized location makes it easy for students and other stakeholders to locate and review degree maps from different departments. In addition to the prescribed course progressions, the UF and FSU departments use their degree map pages as an opportunity to deliver generalized advising on minors, research opportunities, careers, and other information pertinent to the major.

However, even with the guidance of a degree map, a significant number of students will go off-course in their first two years. These students are often struggling in their first choice major and need to move to a “Plan B” major as soon as possible to avoid further delays in graduation.

UF and FSU are using advising staff to intervene with off-course students by building mandatory milestones into their degree maps. Each semester, students in all majors must complete specified courses and attain prescribed minimum GPAs. Missed milestones result in a registration hold that is lifted only after the student meets with an academic advisor. Advisors have the option of forcibly reassigning students who repeatedly miss milestones. The milestone system allows these universities to focus their limited advising resources on the students most in need of assistance.

Departments should define milestones based on historical patterns of success in the major. For a gateway class, departments should set the milestone according to the semester by which past experience shows that the majority of successful students have completed the course. For GPA milestones in limited access majors, departments should consider the threshold GPA necessary in each semester to be on track for entry into the upper division.

Students take fewer “wasted” courses when exposed to a milestone system. Not all of Florida State’s departments had finalized their milestones when the university’s system debuted in 2002, creating a de facto control group of students for comparing the impact of the initiative. FSU has found students in milestone majors graduated with an average of seven fewer credits than their peers, reducing their cost and time in college by more than two courses.

See the study for more information and examples of degree maps with milestones
(Available only to Academic Affairs Forum members)

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