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Enrollment isn’t colleges’ biggest problem. It’s completion. It’s still the case that nearly a third of students at four-year institutions don’t have a degree after six years.  And these students disproportionately come from lower-income backgrounds. Students from the lowest income families have about an 11 percent chance of graduating from college within six years.
There are, of course, many reasons why students drop out or fail out. The factors that the public often blames for this -- academic unpreparedness and disengagement among students and misplaced priorities among faculty -- however, turn out to be far less important than non-academic factors. These include cost, including opportunity costs, competing demands on students’ time, wasted credits (when students transfer or shift majors), various life issues, and a lack of a sense of belonging. Transportation issues, childcare issues, work and family responsibilities, add to the challenge.

So what is to be done? 

Many of today’s most highly touted answers, such as predictive analytics and behavioral nudges, however helpful, turn out to be less significant than simpler nuts-and-bolts matter that colleges have a great deal of control over: course scheduling and availability, degree pathways, academic requirements, pedagogy, and the structure of student support services.

Here are eight common sense student success strategies that can make a big difference.

Strategy 1. Reduce the barriers, financial and academic, to timely completion of a college degree.
The simplest way to reduce higher education’s cost is to accelerate time to completion. Ways to do that include:

▪      Instilling a “finish in 4” mindset.

▪      Incentivizing 30 credit hours a year (for example, by making classes over a certain number free).

▪      Establishing a compact with students, guaranteeing the availability of required courses or an alternative when this is impossible.

Certainly not all students can take a full course load. But facilitating earlier graduation can greatly cut the total cost of enrollment.

Various curricular hurdles can block the path to graduation. Steps toward removing these roadblocks include:

▪      Identifying and eliminating curricular bottlenecks

▪      Monitoring course sections with especially high DFW rates

▪      Making degree pathways simpler

Course availability presents many students with a challenge.  In response, departments and institutions need to:

▪      Optimize course offerings to ensure access to essential courses.

▪      Whenever possible, institute block scheduling to make it easier for students to juggle school and work.

▪      Increase course availability by expanding hybrid and fully-online and low-residency course options.

▪      Maximize opportunities for students to pick up credits by offering intersession, weekend, evening, and online sections of high demand courses.

Other steps that institutions can take to reduce financial barriers include:

▪      Emergency grants and loans and completion scholarships to near completers.

▪      Awarding credit for relevant work and training experiences.

▪      Encouraging adoption of open educational resources and development of interactive courseware to reduce or eliminate textbook costs.

Strategy 2. Make the transfer process more seamless.

At a time when nearly 40 percent of students transfer, it is imperative to reduce the number of lost credit hours and ensure that these students develop a genuine connection to the institution, its faculty, and its departments.  Possible solutions include:

▪      Special orientations for transfer students.

▪      Collaboration with feeder institutions to align courses and academic expectations

▪      Devising curricular pathways in partnership with community college that will lead to success at the 4-year institution

▪      Co-enrolling community college students who meet the four-year institution’s admissions standards

Strategy 3. Promote a sense of belonging.

A sense of belonging turns out to be among the factors most closely correlated with student success.  A sense of connection can be encouraged by:

▪      Organizing and supporting student interest groups

▪      Expanding supervised undergraduate research opportunities

▪      Increasing on-campus employment

Strategy 4. Support departments that want to reimagine and reengineer degree pathways.

Assist departments that wish to:

▪      Develop a Meta-Major (a collection of lower-division courses serve a broad cluster of majors, such as business or the health sciences).

▪      Produce greater curricular coherence by working with departments to ensure that courses are Integrated and synergistic.

▪      Link degree pathways more closely to future professions.

▪      Place a greater emphasis on demonstrated mastery of essential skills.

▪      Integrate multi-modal communication skills, data analytics, and other “21stcentury” competencies and certifications into degree pathways.

▪      Embed co-curricular activities and experiential learning into degree pathways.

Strategy 5. Encourage evidence-based teaching practices that have been shown to enhance engagement and deepen learning.

Enrich the academic experience by:

▪      Promoting the use of active learning pedagogies.

▪      Increasing access to experiential learning, including practicums, field experiences, and service learning opportunities.

▪      Encouraging a skills and mastery focus that utilizes performance- and project-based assessments to evaluate and validate student learning.

▪      Expand next generation online learning opportunities that emphasize Instructor presence, offer multimedia content, interactives and simulations, interaction with other students, and regular, substantive feedback.

Strategy 6. Tackle academic inequities without stigmatizing any group of students.

Techniques that have been shown to work include:

▪      Summer bridge programs and boot camps (for example, in quantitative methods).

▪      Peer-led study groups.

▪      Increased opportunities for mentoring.

▪      Family involvement, for example, by holding a special family orientation or inviting family members to come to campus.

Strategy 7. Reimagine advising and support services.

At institutions where most students possess several risk factors, the challenge is to deliver support services at scale.  Strategies that work include:

▪      Working with faculty to identify students at risk of failure.

▪      Incorporating time management and study skills strategies into lower division courses.

▪      Reaching out to students who shift majors or transfer in.

▪      Creating one-stop access assistance with finances, registration, and other support services.

▪      Instituting a tiered approach to academic support that includes supplemental instruction, peer-led study groups, and peer tutoring, especially in bottleneck courses.

▪      Have a “graduation concierge” to help near completers cross the finish line.

Strategy 8. Better prepare students for the job market.

A key to persistence lies in students’ perception that their courses have a clear value proposition.  Early exposure to labor market realities and career options cannot only encourage students to persist and but help them construct a realistic path forward toward a fulfilling career.  Ways to do that include:

▪      Providing students with labor force information and windows into possible careers.

▪      Aligning gen ed courses with prospective clusters of majors.

▪      Offering skills workshops to train students in high demand skills.

▪      Providing more career exposure during the undergraduate years, including supervised internships and relevant on campus employment.

▪      Considering embedding certificates into degree pathways.

▪      Creating a maker space or an innovation hub to support entrepreneurial skills.

▪      Offering challenges, innovation competitions, and hackathons.

▪      Making sure that on-campus jobs include a career training component.


Student success isn’t a mission impossible.  It’s a moral and political imperative.  No institution should admit students it doesn’t believe it can graduate.   Institutions may not be able to address every barrier to graduation, but colleges and universities have a responsibility to tackle those matters they can control.

Steven Mintz, who directed the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning from 2012 through 2017, is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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