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The College of Mount Saint Vincent, an independent institution of higher education located in the Bronx, New York is eligible for grant programs authorized under Title III and Title V of the Higher Education Act of 1965, and its subsequent reauthorizations. These grant programs aim to strengthen institutions serving large numbers of students from underrepresented backgrounds and other low-income students, so that more students can obtain post-secondary education.
Retention and persistence to degree of the aforementioned students are key performance measures for these grant programs. Accordingly, applicants often focus their proposals on strategies to improve retention and degree completion. The College has strong first-to-second-year retention, with between 75%–80% of each cohort returning in nine of the last 10 years. However, six-year graduation rates in the period have been no higher than 63%. A competitive proposal for the grant available this year (Title V Part A, Developing Hispanic Serving Institutions) would need to focus on the causes of the post first-year attrition and find appropriate solutions. My capstone project aimed to accomplish that.
The College’s existing research reports sliced and diced to look at retention and graduation rates based on race/ethnicity, income level, gender, and first-generation status. None of those categories offered a clear cause of post first-year attrition—and new perspectives were necessary. Engaging colleagues in academic affairs (provost’s office, academic advising, tutoring services) and Institutional Research, the capstone project turned anecdotes and observations about attrition into hypotheses resulting in new research reports.
One area that was suggested as affecting persistence to degree was (for lack of a better term) academic ambivalence. A feeling that students who enter as undecided/undeclared graduated at lower rates was tested—and disproven. As was the idea that students who change a major in the first two years of study had lower completion rates.
Ultimately, we created a report that examines graduation rates from declared major at entry through the six-year standard. We found an interesting and actionable finding, suggesting preparation rather than ambivalence was the issue! Students who entered as declared majors in STEM and business graduated at a slower pace and at lower rate than students in other disciplines.
This finding led us to review SAT data and found students entering as STEM and business majors reported SAT math scores equal to the total cohort, but not greater as you might hope/expect given the reliance on quantitative skills in those curriculums. This knowledge allowed us to use EAB resources and other educational studies to design appropriate interventions in our grant proposal. The interventions include the addition of a quantitative specialist in the College’s academic resource center who will provide additional tutoring support and work with faculty in targeted courses to implement developmental modules, building the quantitative and analytical skills students need for success.
Another area believed to negatively impact degree completion was ability to pay. To explore this, the capstone sought to document graduation rates across the College’s admission and financial model. The model is comprised of five columns/indexes based on level of academic preparedness (column one being the highest, descending to column five) and eight rows which correspond with need as per FAFSA information (need is greatest in row one and decreases down). Each student is placed in the appropriate cell (40 in all) based on the intersections of the columns and rows.
The capstone aimed to document graduation rates by cell. However, that turned out to be a much more involved data project than time allowed. Hopefully, an opportunity to revisit that project will be realized as it has great promise for financial aid planning. With that said, in the fellowship period determining graduation rates by the index level was completed. Again, a finding was revealed that supports intervention to address issues in preparation.
Our report showed students in index level three (the middle of the model and the largest plurality of students) had a graduation rate 13 percentage points lower than students in index level two, and only two percentage points higher than students in index level four. This surely becomes another area grant funds can be directed to for programmatic intervention.
See the fellows' blogs from the capstone projects
Dan Regan and others participated in EAB’s Rising Higher Education Leaders Fellowship in spring 2022