As graduation season approaches, the excitement can overshadow a harsh reality: The students we’re celebrating only make up about 41% of bachelor’s degree students who entered college four years ago.
As for the remaining students—the ones who won’t be donning their caps and gowns this spring—there are a number of hurdles that could have gotten in their way.
In an earlier article, we explored seven reasons—other than cost—that students don’t graduate. Here, we’ve rounded up how colleges are helping students overcome these non-financial barriers.
Strategy 1: Ensure students find value from their work
Colleges may be able to boost retention rates by redesigning work-study programs to help students build career-ready skills, according to a report by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. Students who see value in on-campus jobs and use them to connect with peers and mentors may have a better college experience and be more likely to persist through graduation, the report notes.
Colleges can make work-study jobs more valuable by connecting them to students’ coursework. For example, Clemson University offers an on-campus internship program that places students in positions related to their majors, pays them, and offers academic credit.
Campus leaders can also incorporate transferrable skills into work-study training sessions, student job descriptions, and supervisor check-ins. Missouri University of Science & Technology, for instance, piloted an all-encompassing student employee training. It was so successful that they have expanded it and now offer comprehensive training to all student employees on gaining transferrable skills. In 2016, 87 students participated, and 93% reported that the training helped them prepare for their position on campus.
Strategy 2: Encourage students to take 15 credits per semester
Schools are offering incentives for students to take 15 credits instead of 12, which was previously the common standard for full-time attendance but does not keep students on track for timely graduation. The simple message of the 15 to Finish campaign can be especially effective in clarifying expectations for first-generation students, who might not know that graduating on time calls for 15 credits per term.
For example, the University of Hawaii (UH) has established a campaign called “15 to Finish” that incentivizes students to enroll full-time by offering 15 credits for the price of 12. Through 15 to Finish, UH educates students about the benefits of taking 15 credits, such as better grades, earlier graduation, and increased earnings. The university found that students taking 15 credits get better grades and are less likely to drop out than their peers taking 12, regardless of measures such as high school rank and SAT scores.
Strategy 3: Ease credit transfer
Stronger partnerships between four-year institutions and community colleges can smooth out the transfer process. Early advising and automated credit articulation, in particular, allow students to get on track and stay on track towards bachelor’s degrees.
For example, the University of Central Florida (UCF), which recruits heavily from the Florida community college system, hosts a program called DirectConnect. Advisors present financial aid and transfer admissions workshops at community college orientations, which encourage students to consider transfer options and connect students with university advisors from day one. Through DirectConnect, students not only find out exactly which courses qualify for their major of choice, but also receive paperwork reminders and check-ups from two sources, which helps to keep students on track.
Strategy 4: Help students find their purpose
One way colleges and universities can help students graduate faster—with the degree they want—is to help them find their purpose, according to a report from Complete College America. “When students have a strong sense of purpose early on, they are better able to take advantage of available resources and experiences intended to prepare them for future careers,” the report reads.
Colleges can help incoming and first-year students make purpose-driven academic and professional decision early on. For example, Baker College uses artificial intelligence to help students pick the right major, faster. The college partnered with a tech company to guide students through a 15-minute interest assessment. After students complete the assessment, they receive a list of 10 recommended programs with a description of each, median salaries of related careers, and employment outcomes. Over the course of two years, the college saw a 50% decrease in the number of students who changed their major after enrolling.
Strategy 5: Rethink remedial classes
To remove remedial courses an obstacle, some colleges are implementing co-requisite instruction, which allows students to immediately enroll in degree-required coursework while receiving additional academic support. For example, Cuyamaca College and Guttman Community College have adopted the co-requisite model to successfully replace remedial math courses.
And North Carolina’s community college system passed rules in 2013 that allow students with a high school GPA of at least 2.6 and a minimum number of high school courses to bypass remedial placement exams. A report from the Center for Community College Student Engagement found that students who took advantage of this model were more likely to pass their first credit-bearing math or English courses than those who sat for placement exams.
Strategy 6: Help students cultivate a growth mindset
To help students persist, colleges need to address students’ doubts and misconceptions about their ability to succeed. Colleges who help students build their confidence can inoculate them against future academic challenges that might elongate or derail their degree.
For example, University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) administrators worked with psychology faculty to design an orientation exercise that fosters academic perseverance among students.
In one experiment, UT Austin asked incoming students to read articles on different subjects and write reflections over the summer before matriculation. One group reviewed material about the growth mindset, read messages from current students about their difficult transition to campus, and gave advice to future college students about academic perseverance. This group had a credit completion gap half the size of their peers that read generic articles about the local community.
And each year at Amherst College, incoming students read letters from other students about the challenges they faced, write an essay about their personal experience overcoming obstacles, and record a video on what they’ve learned. After implementing this exercise, Amherst saw the GPA gap between African American and white graduates shrink by 50%.
Strategy 7: Connect students to a support network
To set first-generation and low-income students up for success, some colleges are helping them connect to and build support networks.
For example, Arizona Western College launched an “I Am First Gen” campaign in 2018 to elevate their faculty and staff who identify as first-generation. Students and faculty wore bright yellow “I Am First Gen” t-shirts and established a First-Generation College Student Day in November.
Similarly, the University of California, San Diego‘s mentorship program connects first-gen students with peer and professional “coaches,” and it has led to increased student satisfaction among those participating. And Ivy Tech Community College pairs low-income students with remote coaches during their first year on campus, raising retention rates 10 percentage points over a three-year period.
(Kolodner, New York Times, 4/6/2017; Templin/Deane, Inside Higher Ed, 10/8/2017; Marcus, Hechinger Report, 2/17/2016; Bruni, New York Times, 9/6/2017; Rosenberg, New York Times, 3/28/2017; Collins, The Atlantic, 9/5/2016; Zinshteyn, The Atlantic, 3/9/2016; Paterson, Education Dive, 9/12/2018; Kirp, New York Times, 3/5/2018; Supiano, Chronicle of Higher Education, 7/26/2018; Smith, Inside Higher Ed, 4/11/2018)