4 ways to boost your graduation rate

How academic policies can help—or hinder—institutions in hardwiring student success

By Alexa Silverman

The path to college retention and graduation is often littered with small roadblocks. The individual effects of institutional policies, processes, and rules—even if created with the best intentions in mind—might seem minor, but collectively, they can lead to attrition. We collected four examples from member institutions that highlight the role academic policy plays in student retention and completion.

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1. Integrate experiential learning into credit-bearing courses

Experiential learning opportunities, from internships and co-ops to project-based service learning, help students connect coursework to their real-world interests and career goals and give them much-needed qualifications when they enter the workplace. To encourage more widespread participation, many institutions have added an extra-curricular experiential requirement—which many students put off until they are about to graduate.

Instead, when students get hands-on, real-world experience as part of their regular, for-credit coursework, there’s less risk that students will delay or ignore experiential requirements. Not only do students get an early look into academic and career options, they are also guided to see the connection between their coursework and their interests, skills, and aspirations.

2. Integrate co-requisite remediation into summer early start coursework

One of the greatest barriers academically at-risk students face when they arrive at college is the need to complete developmental (remedial) coursework. Developmental courses have high failure rates and do not contribute to degree requirements. Many students with developmental needs take longer to graduate—if they graduate at all.

Enrolling at-risk students directly in college-level coursework may seem counterintuitive—but with a comprehensive co-requisite program of supplemental instruction and targeted student support, it’s a formula for success. Through pre-orientation “early start” programs, formerly at-risk students can complete remedial and college-level classes before their first year even begins.

3. Centrally coordinate and schedule messages to large numbers of students

The overwhelming amount of email messages students receive means students can easily miss critical reminders. When a message about a bursar hold, registration deadline, or urgent advising appointment is indistinguishable from spam, students may ignore the message, disrupting their progress.


A central email calendar and “gatekeeper” (such as the CIO) for mass communications ensure that messages are vetted and scheduled systematically, and that urgent emails (like registration deadline reminders) are easy to distinguish from general announcements.

4. Remind students to renew financial aid with student-friendly nudges

One of the top reasons students drop out of college is affordability, and yet, at least 15% of federal Pell Grant recipients in good academic standing do not refile federal forms that provide access to crucial dollars. Often, students do not even know they need to refile their FAFSA past the first year, and when they do, jargon and complex financial forms make the process frustrating and burdensome.

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To help students take advantage of federal financial support, institutions have turned to gentle behavioral ‘nudges’. A series of clear, student-friendly messages to students who haven’t refiled (and their parents) communicates urgency around important deadlines and helps walk students through the refile process.

Diagnose the strength of your academic policies

To help you address these four completion barriers and more, the EAB Academic Policy Audit toolkit (newly updated for 2017) can help you diagnose overly-strict or overly-lenient policies on your own campus. Access 18 best-practice policy recommendations, case studies, and resources to implement change at your institution. Continue reading.

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Student Completion Policy Audit

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