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Research Report

Promoting Timely Degree Completion Study

Reconciling student choice and the four-year graduation imperative

December 13, 2016

This study will help you address both attrition and progress delays with 16 best practices to change the graduation focus and improve student success.

Fewer than 40% of students seeking a bachelor’s degree actually graduate in four years. While attrition is one of the main causes for this low number, progress delays also keep students from graduating on time. Such delays are increasingly costly to students and to colleges and universities.

Download the entire publication or explore the 16 best practices below to shift the graduation focus from six years to four years.

The four-year graduation imperatives

Retention and completion are often viewed as synonymous with student success, with the emphasis on these metrics shaping much of our approach. For instance, many of our tools, like risk monitoring and intrusive advising, largely focus on managing attrition risk across the student lifecycle.

Yet, despite the extensive body of work and resources dedicated to improving retention and completion, most institutions will agree that they do not wholly define student success. Rather, preventing attrition constitutes the foundation upon which holistic student development can be achieved.

Ideally, a successful student would enroll; establish a sense of engagement and belonging on campus; develop academically, socially, and emotionally; graduate without overwhelming financial burden; and find satisfaction in their post-graduate pursuits, whether those be an advanced degree or employment. Even with this broader definition, institutions should periodically reevaluate their student success objectives to better serve students, who might perceive their success differently.

As institutions continue to advance student success strategic planning, and move to organize resources and infrastructure to improve graduation success, we should also consider how to mobilize and adapt our strategy to support a more comprehensive set of student outcomes beyond the simplistic view of student success as graduation success.

How to Promote Financial Wellness

Encouraging early credit momentum

Equitable outcomes for underrepresented students are a mission imperative shared across institutional segments. The unfortunate reality is that credit accumulation gaps between populations appear before students even set foot on campus.

The National Center for Education Statistics’ Beginning Postsecondary Students (BPS) national data set confirms what most university leaders already know: our current approach to degree progression systematically disadvantages two key constituencies, underrepresented minority students and transfer students.

Underrepresented students are overrepresented in non-credit-bearing remedial courses and so are immediately delayed in generating college-level credits when compared to their peers. They are also more likely to earn fewer credits during their first year in college—even after accounting for academic ability (measured by high school GPA).


“Transfer students are constrained by Pell lifetime eligibility, but they also register last. It is even more important that we get them started off right.”


Michael Herndon, Director, Office of Summer and Winter Sessions

Virginia Tech

Practice 1: Hardwiring "15 to Finish"

When it comes to credit accumulation, the power of high-visibility marketing campaigns like “15 to Finish” cannot be overstated. Especially for first-generation students, for whom the incremental steps to graduation are less obvious, the direct message of these campaigns– graduate on time by completing 15 credits per term or 30 credits per year– clarifies expectations. Even more powerful is the counsel students receive from their advisors, who are concerned not only with academic success but also with students’ mental health. Learn more.

Practice 2: Summer Early Start for Borderline Admits

Summer “bridge” programs targeting specific student subpopulations are far from novel—many, if not most, institutions have put these programs in place, often for first-generation students, students of color, or students who lag behind their peers in GPA or test scores. Learn more.

Practice 3: Summer Early Start for Transfer Students

Virginia Tech is applying the same logic as Georgia State to the similarly at-risk population of transfer students. To encourage meaningful credit accumulation from day one, the Summer Division offers a Transfer Academy prior to fall term. The Transfer Academy addresses concerns of credit articulation and seat availability among new transfer students from Virginia’s community colleges. Learn more.

Practice 4: Summer Early Start for All Incoming Students

In addition to its three Transfer Academy tracks, Virginia Tech also offers an institution-wide Early Start in the summer, allowing any incoming student to accumulate meaningful credits before fall term even begins. By combining Virginia Tech’s Early Start and Transfer Academy with Georgia State’s Success Academy for borderline admits, summer term could be transformed to meet the unique needs of all new student populations. Learn more.

Practice 5: Multi-selection Calculus Redesign

Boise State’s Center for Teaching and Learning invited mathematics faculty to participate in a course-based FLC, specifically to restructure Calculus I. The redesign effort, depicted below, took place over two phases over the course of about 16 months (or two academic years). Learn more.

Maximizing degree-applicable credit

For many students, major choice is a dilemma approaching an existential crisis. For perhaps the first time, they must grapple with questions of personal identity, career goals, and future aspirations. And when most institutions offer an overwhelming—and growing—number of program options, these pressures only intensify.

A survey of students at Pennsylvania State University suggests that declaring a major is far from a sign of certainty. In 2012, 80% of incoming students who had already declared a major indicated they were still uncertain about their choices. With over 160 options available to Penn State’s students, it is little wonder they were not sure they had chosen the right one.

The weight of major choice leads many academic leaders to ask: what are the implications of this uncertainty for time to degree?

Practice 6: Major-Career Interest Matching

At Florida International University (FIU), students are encouraged to explore majors and careers before even applying to the institution. Early career assessment helps students identify programs and careers that match their interests—including options they may not have been aware of before. At FIU, all applicants are prompted to take Kuder’s 10-minute Career Interest Assessment, which generates a series of career clusters. FIU faculty worked with the Dean of Undergraduate Education to map those clusters to majors, which students can click on to view major requirements and more information. Learn more.

Practice 7: First-Year Meta-major Schedules

Georgia State University’s unique vision for meta-majors addresses some of their typical pitfalls. Rather than confusing applicants with the new vocabulary of meta-majors, Georgia State asks students to simply apply to a major or as undeclared. Meta-majors are introduced at first-year orientation. Moreover, meta-majors are mandatory for all students. Until required major declaration at 45 credits, Georgia State pre-sets students’ schedules based on their meta-major (students still select electives). By being prescriptive at the outset, Georgia State preserves major optionality for students later on. Learn more.

Practice 8: Degree Plan Express Registration

In light of these challenges, North Carolina State University chose to integrate its existing registration tools. While the system does not automatically build a schedule for students, it has created a “one-stop shop” model of course registration. At NC State, the degree audit, eight-semester degree maps for each major, the university course schedule, the course catalog, and NC State’s academic advising platform are integrated into a single-sign-on system called Enrollment Wizard. The Enrollment Wizard is built around the premise that a student will complete in four years. Learn more.

Practice 9: Major-Specific Delay Diagnostic

Even when institutions optimize student course choices, some majors are still more likely than others to cause graduation delays. The provost at the University of Maine sought to examine these delays more closely. Working with the director of institutional research, he ranked all majors according to their two-year graduation rates for students with at least 65 credits. He then asked the deans of colleges with majors in the lowest quartile of graduation rates to charge department heads with investigating sources of delays and proposing solutions. Learn more.

Aligning course capacity with student needs

Insufficient course availability is a commonly cited contributor to delayed graduation. Unfortunately, institutional research reports attempting to analyze and quantify the impact of course availability on degree progression have arrived at conflicting or inconclusive results.

What we do know is the level of dissatisfaction students indicate regarding course availability. For instance, in a 2014 student satisfaction survey conducted at public universities, course availability showed the second largest gap between importance and satisfaction—second only to on-campus parking.

Practice 10: Uncapped Wait Lists

The first thing institutions can do to improve data collection and better understand student demand is to remove the cap on course wait lists. For most institutions, this is a quick win: registration systems typically allow for centrally managed wait lists with a customizable maximum. Learn more.

Practice 11: Intent-to-Register Plans

Using wait list data is still a reactive approach to capacity management, waiting until registration opens to determine how an already-set schedule needs to be tweaked. At California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly), the university registrar developed a method of testing student demand in advance. Rather than relying on predictive analytics tools, which at the time of this writing tend to be limited, faulty, and difficult to integrate with existing software, faculty and staff at Cal Poly simply request course planning information directly from students. Learn more.

Practice 12: Multi-term Registration

To extend the response time to account for mismatches between demand analysis and capacity, Michigan State University moved to a multi-term registration process, which allows students to register for multiple terms at a time. Multi-term registration provides a longer-term view of student demand for courses while giving faculty more time to accommodate that demand. Learn more.

Practice 13: Completion-Based Registration Priority

Two examples from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly) and The University of Colorado, Boulder (CU Boulder) illustrate how priority order in registration and wait list systems can be used as an incentive to ensure students are able to get into urgently needed courses. Learn more.

Creating second chances for off-pace students

Even when comprehensive preventative measures are put into place, some students will inevitably encounter delays. Institutions can proactively help students recover from missteps by creating visible alternative pathways to on-time completion.

Non-traditional terms, such as summer and winter sessions, add flexibility to the academic calendar that can afford students the opportunity to catch up on lost time. Unfortunately, most institutions structure these terms around faculty teaching preferences, rather than for the express purpose of degree advancement.

Practice 14: Summer Catch-Up Campaigns

To maximize the impact of summer terms on degree progress, the provost and summer session office at Purdue University developed a data-driven incentive program to encourage faculty to provide courses with significant student demand. First, summer session office staff identify a list of high-impact summer courses through quantitative analysis of course fill rates and DFW rates, supported by qualitative feedback from academic advising staff. Learn more.

Practice 15: Degree-Advancing Intersession Courses

The University of Maine (UMaine) systematically restructured its intersession term to provide its students with an alternative way to reach 30 credits each academic year. Like Purdue, UMaine screened course offerings based on two criteria: historical barriers to student progression (general education bottlenecks, highly sequenced courses, and major requirements), and courses amenable to compression into a fully-online, 5-days-per-week, 3-week format. Learn more.

Practice 16: Regular-Term Accelerated Courses

While accelerated courses in the winter and summer are good options to get off-pace students back on track, some institutions are trying to introduce additional flexibility by providing accelerated courses during the regular term. Depicted below are four ways for a student to gain a second chance in the same term if that student were to fail or withdraw from first-year English. Learn more.

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