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SUNY at Buffalo students during a 2013 campus visit by President Obama.

SUNY at Buffalo

A decade ago just 35 percent of students at the State University of New York at Buffalo graduated within four years. That number climbed to 55 percent last year, and the gain was accompanied by a rare narrowing of graduation-rate gaps for minority and low-income student populations.

A key part of the university's broad completion push is a pledge it introduced for students in 2012. And the so-called Finish in 4 program features serious commitments, by both students and the university.

A. Scott Weber, senior vice provost for academic affairs at the University at Buffalo, helped create the pledge. He describes it as a demonstration of "joint responsibilities to make progress to a degree."

The 1,479 incoming students who took the university's pledge in 2012 signed their names on a piece of paper and promised to register for classes on time, follow a structured curricular plan and talk with an academic adviser at least once a semester.

Students also took an assessment designed to help them choose a major and career path as part of the pledge. And they have to be in an approved major by the time they complete 60 credits, which typically is the midpoint to a bachelor's degree.

Half the university's incoming class took the pledge in 2012. This academic year more than three-quarters of new students signed onto an updated digital version. Weber also signs each pledge, as do student advisers.

"We track every one of these students," Weber said. "If they haven't met their goals, they're no longer part of the cohort."

That can come with a cost -- Finish in 4 includes the university's promise that students who meet their obligations but do not graduate in four years may finish their degree at the university without paying any more tuition and fees. While students who wash out of the program still get all the supports, like advising, the tuition guarantee goes away.

Likewise, the university has tried to make sure students can get into the classes they need to finish on time.

The University at Buffalo is a big place. It enrolls 20,000 undergraduates and 10,000 graduate students. The university, like many of its large public peers, often had overbooked courses, including ones required for completing a major.

"We felt we weren't really meeting some of our obligations," said Weber.

So the university bit the bullet in 2012, creating 300 new course sections -- the equivalent of 10,000 slots for students. And many of those new sections were in high-demand courses.

The university spent $2.1 million on the program in the fall of 2012, officials said. And spending on additional student advising and other supports has raised the annual cost to $2.5 million.

It has paid off for students.

Of the initial group of pledge signers, 930, or 63 percent, have graduated, topping the national on-time rate of 34 percent for public institutions. (The rate is 60 percent for research-intensive universities like Buffalo, according to federal data, meaning the university has closed that gap.) And while the self-selecting pledge group topped their nonpledging peers -- 52.7 percent of whom have graduated, according to preliminary data -- Buffalo's overall four-year rate also is close behind at 55 percent. And the universitywide, six-year graduation rate is a solid 74 percent.

Likewise, the percentage of black students at the university who completed their degrees within six years rose by 20 percentage points in the decade before 2013, earning Buffalo praise in a report by the Education Trust.

One reason Finish in 4 has helped more than just the students who signed on is that its support services are available to all. And the scale of the program has helped it become a widely known priority.

"A lot of this, we were doing before," Weber said. But the influence of the Finish in 4 "brand" has been more powerful on campus than predicted. "This is part of our university's vocabulary."

Changing Status Quo

Paula Lazatin signed the pledge in 2012, when she first enrolled at the university. She was surprised to learn that so many students weren't graduating on time.

"I really wanted to make sure I was one of the ones who finished," Lazatin said.

The national college completion campaign, which President Obama and foundations have led, obviously extends to research universities. But some might share Lazatin's surprise that roughly half of students graduate within four years at universities like Buffalo, which is a member of the prestigious Association of American Universities.

A growing number of research universities want to improve graduation rates. For example, the University Innovation Alliance is a relatively new coalition of 11 research universities around the country that are sharing techniques for getting more students to graduation and for cutting equity gaps.

Likewise, the University of Texas at Austin is spending big to boost its four-year graduation rates, which have long lingered just above 50 percent. So has the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, a flagship like UT Austin, which has increased its rate to 59 percent from 42 percent in a relatively short period of time.

Completion experts praised Buffalo for its decade-long push on graduation rates, which this year will include a universitywide early alert system to identify students who are struggling and help to get them back on track. And while Buffalo has gotten slightly more selective in its admissions during the same time period (with a 25-point gain in students' median SAT score), Weber said selectivity hasn't been a primary driver of the graduation-rate gains. He points instead to the systematic approach the university has taken to identify and reduce the barriers students face.

Patrick Methvin, deputy director of postsecondary success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, praised the university's financial commitment to the effort. "They're putting skin in the game," he said.

Methvin cited other completion programs that funnel money and resources to helping students get to the finish line, including the City University of New York's Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, which features $4,700 in additional spending per year for each student participant. But he said that level of fiscal commitment is far from the norm.

Many campuses, systems and states are making on-time completion a priority, said Danette Howard, vice president for policy and mobilization at Lumina Foundation. For example, she cited the spread of 15 to Finish programs, which encourage students to take 15 credits per semester. But Howard said relatively few of those efforts include the sort of spending Buffalo has added for student supports.

"They put in place all these wraparound services to ensure that students graduate on time," she said.

Research and Completion

The University at Buffalo had enough advising capacity in place when the program began, Weber said, but the pledge ensured more students were seeing their advisers. Academic departments also created curricular plans for each degree path as part of the completion program.

Some faculty and staff members were wary of the project, Weber acknowledges.

He heard worries about a cheapening of degrees amid the grad-rate push. And advisers wondered if they might have to absorb some of the tuition-guarantee costs as well as more work.

But Satish K. Tripathi, the university's provost during the program's creation, was a strong supporter. He made sure it wasn't just a pilot program, Weber said, with an "everybody's in" mentality. Tripathi became the university's president before Finish in 4 began.

Most lingering doubts about the program have been washed away by its success, according to university officials. And it helps, Weber said, that President Obama came to campus in 2013 to unveil his college ratings plan, giving a shout-out during his speech to the university and the progress it has made on graduation rates.

"Not many deans are thinking about their graduation rates at an R1 university," said Weber, but they are at Buffalo.

Weber said the program has become a recruiting tool for both students and parents, who understandably like the university's attention to timely graduation.

The SUNY System is also seeking investment to roll out Finish in 4 at all its 64 campuses.

For her part, Lazatin said the pledge was a goal to lean on during the long, hard days when she was taking 21 credits or more in a semester.

"It got overwhelming sometimes," she said. "But it helped me stay on track."

This month Lazatin graduated, on time, with three majors.

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