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A growing number of universities are trading notes on how to improve student success rates. And the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities wants to take this cross-institutional collaboration to the next level.

Over the weekend the group released details on an ambitious project involving 130 universities and systems that have pledged to work together in 16 “clusters” to boost their student access and completion rates while also curbing equity gaps.

“These are burning issues for everybody,” said Rick Miranda, provost and executive vice president of Colorado State University, which is part of the effort. “Working together is a way to do it better.”

The APLU and participating universities helped shape the clusters, each of which includes four to 12 universities grouped around geographic and other characteristics. For example, the project features an urban cluster, a group of technology-focused institutions, a cluster of universities with high percentages of Pell recipients and one that will seek to integrate data collection systems across six universities.

The 130 participating institutions collectively enroll three million students, one million of whom are eligible to receive Pell Grants. Under the project, which is dubbed Powered by Publics: Scaling Student Success, the universities are seeking to graduate several hundred thousand additional students over the next five years. APLU, which is holding its annual meeting in New Orleans, said specific completion targets are in the works.

Data sharing will be a key part of the effort, said Julia Michaels, deputy executive director of APLU’s Center for Public University Transformation, which receives funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is overseeing the initiative. She said the clusters will use standard metrics on student completion, retention and credit accumulation.

Nationwide, 61 percent of students who first enrolled at a four-year public institution graduate within six years, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Deep achievement gaps persist as well. Just half of black students and 56 percent of Latino students completed at four-year publics within six years, the center found, compared to 71 percent of white students and 76 percent of Asian students.

APLU has asked for a five-year commitment for participating universities. The group said it will be open about its goals, publicly releasing hard numbers about completion and other targets as well as how each university is faring. If the project is successful, the group said it will continue the work as part of its membership benefits.

Urgency about improving completion rates at public universities has been building in recent years, due in part to performance-funding formulas that more than 35 states have enacted, many of which include completion components.

But beyond nudges from policy makers, university leaders and faculty members also increasingly realize they must help more students get to graduation to avoid the catastrophe of taking on debt without earning a degree, which in turn contributes to high student loan default rates, particularly for borrowers from minority groups.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Peter McPherson, APLU’s president, said when the group unveiled the project in February.

Mind the Gap

Eight years ago, Wayne State University was widely criticized after a report from the Education Trust identified its relatively low graduation rates and a deep achievement gap between black and white students at the university, which is located in Detroit.

M. Roy Wilson became Wayne State’s president in 2013. He said improving completion rates has been the university’s top priority ever since.

“We went to work immediately,” said Wilson. “We decided we were going to take the approach of not making excuses.”

Wayne State has had impressive results, improving its graduation rate by 21 percentage points during the last six years. In the same time frame, the completion rate for black students tripled. While an achievement gap still exists, Wilson said that’s mostly because graduation rates are rising for all student groups.

“We really think the black-white gap disappears soon,” he said.

APLU honored Wayne State on Sunday for its momentum on completion, giving the university an award for its "remarkable gains," including the increase of its graduation rate to 47 percent from 26 percent over six years.

The key for Wayne State and other participating universities, said APLU officials and participating university leaders, will be the sharing of tactics that work on completion.

“The goal here is to learn from each other,” Wilson said. “There are certainly things we can learn from others.”

Miranda agreed, saying the plan is to “take the best ideas and see how they can scale.”

The structured approach of the clusters, he said, will carve out time for administrators and faculty members to collaborate more deeply than is typically possible. Colorado State’s project team, for example, will include six administrators who work on student success, ranging from the president to an official from the institutional research department.

“It’s not unusual for us to be working together to make progress on these problems,” he said. “But we’ve really taken this to a whole other level of scale.”

The rollout of the University Innovation Alliance four years ago was a major development in cross-intuitional collaboration between public universities on student completion. And the group of 11 large research universities has achieved substantial gains, producing 29 percent more low-income graduates since the collaboration began. The group has said it’s on target for an increase of 100,000 completers alliancewide by 2022.

Colorado State is part of APLU’s western land-grant cluster. Miranda said the group of 11 universities will start by exploring completion strategies in four areas: academic advising models, digital learning tools such as adaptive learning, professional development for faculty members, and corequisite support (meaning the use of additional supports for students in courses rather than steering less-prepared ones to prerequisite courses).

Miranda is excited about the work and said he’s confident the universities will stick to the five-year commitment, and potentially more. That’s because both the completion challenge and the strategies for tackling it are enduring, he said. “If anything, these are going to become more important.”

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