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Improving completion rates in gateway courses: Applying a root cause analysis model and equity lens

August 9, 2023

Betsy Dunn-Williams

Dean of Academic Success, Campbell University

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of EAB.

Improving course and degree completion rates is always a valuable effort and increasingly current issues in the higher education landscape make it imperative. Nationally, fewer than 40% of students complete a bachelor’s degree in four years. Research indicates that two-thirds is attributed to attrition and one-third to progression delays. Course completion, particularly in introductory-level courses, is connected to both matters.

Literature abounds regarding the higher rates of D/F/W grades and attrition for first-generation and underrepresented minority students. This contrast only heightened during the pandemic, with a wide spectrum of learning preparedness and a greater need to support college-level learning. Additionally, declining undergraduate enrollment nationally makes retention and persistence crucial, particularly for tuition-driven institutions. 

Given this perspective, I chose to research completion rates in gateway courses at Campbell University, with a specific focus on identifying and addressing root causes and matters of equity in course and degree completion. 

For this research, I selected high-enrolled, introductory-level courses. I considered post-pandemic years for which we had full grade data and studied rates of final grades issued as D, F, and W. I applied a root cause analysis model, consulting with academic administration, advisors, and academic support staff for two courses with noticeably higher D/F/W rates. 

Identified root causes included: inadequate course preparation, including preparation for specific course content and general academic skills such as study skills and note takinglack of understanding regarding academic support resources and engagement in help-seeking behavior; and pedagogical variation between sections, specifically with regard to content delivery and grading. 

I identified three strategies for early implementation to specifically address identified root causes, particularly academic readiness, and resource-seeking behaviors: 

  1. Leverage the existing Starfish platform to deliver targeted and timed messaging to students enrolled in courses of focus, while also encouraging faculty to submit thorough feedback through the early alert platform. 
  2. Engage campus partners in addressing students’ help-seeking behaviors by moving some academic support programming to the residence halls and providing access to discipline-specific librarians through students’ virtual support network in Starfish.
  3. Enhance course-embedded support by introducing Supplemental Instruction in target courses and offering foundational content workshops with faculty input. 
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Research indicates that the higher education landscape can expect a minimum of five years of incoming classes with elevated academic needs. A strategic focus on course and degree completion in the post-pandemic environment will continue to be crucial for the success of students and institutions alike. At Campbell, assessment and enhancement of early implementation strategies will continue to inform this work, as will future considerations in course design and pedagogy, which has real potential for greater institutional impact on retention, persistence, and degree completion.

The EAB Rising Leaders Fellowship experience was both personally and professionally fulfilling, with highly informative content and impactful interactions. The fellowship experience provided inspiration and space to address what we know is a worthy venture that will have a lasting impact at Campbell University.

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