Graduation rates

Accreditors tighten scrutiny of low graduation rates

Regional accreditors weigh in on graduation rates with an analysis of colleges with low rates, but the agencies argue against using a "bright-line" approach.

Applying behavioral science techniques to improve student graduation rates (opinion)

In 2001, more than a quarter of American teenagers smoked. Smoking-related illness was the leading cause of preventable death in America, yet the public health community remained unable to achieve a large-scale reduction in teen smoking. Even explicit warnings about the deadly consequences of lighting up seemed to have only a negligible impact.

It wasn’t until a team of social marketers, working with the American Legacy Foundation, tried an unorthodox approach that real progress was made to combat this seemingly intractable challenge. Instead of threatening teens, they used a social call to action, encouraging youth to reject manipulation by tobacco corporations. Teens, research found, craved a feeling of social acceptance mixed with rebellion -- and the anticorporate message fulfilled that desire. Thanks in part to efforts like the truth campaign and the application of behavioral science, public health leaders have been able to significantly reduce teen smoking.

Behavioral science has gone mainstream across all sectors and represents a powerful underlying force in consumer life, from browsing music to planning travel online. Improving social outcomes sometimes requires counterintuitive tactics. Higher education professionals, too, have an opportunity to deploy behavior science principles and techniques to help solve the seminal challenges in postsecondary education: increasing completion and closing achievement gaps.

Here are a few simple strategies for applying those principles and techniques to improve student support and nurture stronger outcomes.

Flip the script on stigma and peer pressure. Students who don’t succeed in college and graduate might have done so if they’d only received the proper support. Colleges and universities usually offer that support, but one of the challenges facing student affairs professionals is that a stigma is often attached to such services. Students feel that taking advantage of support is a sign of weakness or defeat -- or that support is something to seek out only if you’re in significant trouble.

Yet the reality is that all students, even the most high-performing ones, can benefit from a helping hand, and that it’s typical and beneficial to engage with these services. To alleviate stigma and promote the use of support services, student affairs professionals can use data and information about student peer groups to make support-seeking behavior the norm, not an exception.

For example, one institution texts incoming students a graphic showing why current students reach out to student affairs staff. The reasons included needing a sounding board for an important decision, wanting to explore career options before selecting a major and desiring to celebrate an important academic milestone. Students have also received texts with factoids, such as the percentage of peers who already contacted their advisers.

In addition, the college shares the results of a survey showing that students who had at least one meeting with their success coach were less stressed and had higher grade point averages. By pre-empting concerns of students who might look at campus services as a crutch, institutions can promote higher overall engagement across a broader range of students.

Use nudges to stimulate contingency planning. The old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure applies as strongly to student success as it does in health and wellness. That is especially true for the growing majority of post-traditional students who are either first-generation college-goers or are balancing their studies with busy lives full of work, family and other commitments. A simple invitation to do a little contingency planning can make all the difference before life events threaten to derail a student’s progress.

One student services team approaches this challenge by providing simple planning tools: short videos combined with a worksheet or checklist. Those resources support students in developing plans for common issues, such as unplanned expenses, loss of child care services or a work-related emergency that might derail their participation in classes, campus activities or homework. To encourage students to engage with those resources, they send text messages along the lines of, “Want to be less stressed and avoid life getting in the way of your studies? Students who spent five minutes with this simple planning tool say it made a big difference.”

Make motivation and reflection a daily part of the student experience. One thing is certain: every student’s academic journey has its ups and downs, and quitting becomes an easy way out when goals are abstract, unclear or distant. Staying connected to one’s core motivation for pursuing education and taking time to reflect on the wins and lessons is vital for success.

One student success coach we know has some handy tips for keeping students motivated and connected to their purpose. She asks incoming students to find an image that represents how their life will be better with a credential -- maybe a photo related to their dream job or a picture of the kids they’ll be offering a better life. She then has them make it the home screen image on their phone, so they are reminded every day of why the struggle matters. To encourage reflection during the year, she often sends her students a text such as, “Did you know that Michael Jordan didn’t make his high school varsity basketball team until his junior year? Think of a time you didn’t hit your goal. How did it make you stronger?”

When a student’s goals are clearly grounded in their own interests and passions, overcoming challenges becomes its own reward.

These are just a few examples of the many innovative ways that student affairs professionals around the country are applying behavioral science to college access, retention and completion efforts. Slowly but surely, student success experts and researchers are beginning to see these efforts pay off. For example, economists Caroline Hoxby from Stanford University and Sarah Turner from the University of Virginia and Stanford University are showing how behavioral science principles can improve student enrollment decisions. Similarly, former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Up Next initiative is entering its third year of using the same mobile messaging tactics used by successful tech companies to streamline the financial aid and enrollment process and reduce summer melt.

To be sure, achieving social change on a large scale starts with individual behavior. If there were ever a challenge that called out for such an approach, improving college completion would be it. By embracing the surprising insights and sometimes counterintuitive choices that behavioral science has to offer, higher education practitioners are tackling education’s biggest challenges at their roots -- and beginning to show real progress.

Kevin Kruger is president of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. Catherine Parkay is research programs director at InsideTrack.

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Colleges should identify high school students who can encourage their peers to go on to college (essay)

There are statistics that haunt the college equity community. In 1970, 6 percent of low-income students attained a B.A. by the age of 24. By 2013, this rate had indeed increased -- to 9 percent. In the meantime, 77 percent of high-income youth were graduating with a B.A., according to the Pell Institute.

Over four decades, those of us who work in higher education have tried many complex and expensive interventions in an attempt to bridge the achievement gap. Yet the inequity in college attainment stubbornly persists, leading to the growing and alarming income gap our country struggles with today.

It’s time to try something new: engaging high school students to provide the solution for closing the gap. Research and practice support the theory that the essential element of a robust college-going culture is a humming peer-to-peer network. When engaged, students can drive achievement not just for themselves individually but for all their classmates.

Studies by Laurence Steinberg of Temple University and Robert Crosnoe of the University of Texas have demonstrated that students have the greatest influence over their school culture, especially when they assist one another. In a conversation I had with Crosnoe, he argued this “instrumental assistance” holds the most promise for practice and public policy because students can be deliberately organized, empowered and coached to work on behalf of their classmates.

Though this solution begins on the K-12 side, colleges and universities also have a key role to play. They should support high schools in leveraging the power of positive peer influence.

At College Summit, we have conducted programs in more than 500 high schools to determine best practices for putting this peer-to-peer network to work. Through the College Summit PeerForward model, we train high school juniors and seniors to become peer leaders who to help their classmates learn about college, write their personal essays and file for financial aid.

There are three main pillars to our model: (1) student voice, where students are design partners and programmatic decision makers, (2) student agency, where students own their personal achievement, developing mastery through a combination of noncognitive skills and personalized learning pathways, and (3) student influence, where students assist their classmates to achieve, recognizing that they have the power and the responsibility to work on behalf of their classmates.

These programs have had a powerful impact. In a quasi-experimental study conducted by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh, schools with a peer leader team had a 26 percent higher FAFSA completion rate than comparable schools without a peer-to-peer strategy.

This empirical result derives from the ingenuity of the youth themselves. I have been privileged to observe students in urban and rural high schools lead their classmates to college. I’ve seen students lock the senior class in a gym until they have completed their state college applications.

When college representatives refused to come to a high school, I saw a group of students themselves represent the colleges in the cafeteria. In Detroit, a team of high school students negotiated utility bill credits for families who completed the FAFSA. In rural Florida, I watched a team of 11th and 12th graders run an assembly for 1,500 students like it was a revival meeting, exhorting the entire school to commit to going to college. And I’ve seen a team of 12th graders help reduce their school’s ninth-grade dropout rates by adopting and coaching at-risk, first-year high school students to envision their personal purpose and stay in school.

A staff member of Detroit Edison Public School Academy described the impact: “These students have made such a difference in our school. Watching them work with the rest of the students -- almost as surrogate counselors -- has made me understand what a valuable resource I have. They have created a real culture of college-going.”

After witnessing the transformative power of high school juniors and seniors guiding their peers to higher education, we have decided to focus exclusively on developing and deploying these peer leaders in our partner schools, with the aim of placing 1,000 peer-leader teams in 1,000 high schools in the coming decade.

Colleges that support the role of high school student engagement will not only be helping to solve a national emergency but also creating a pipeline of talent for their institutions, as we have seen in many College Summit partner colleges. I urge colleges to reach out to high schools to help them assemble a team of students to ensure that all of their classmates are navigating the pathway to a higher education degree.

Ramon Gomez, a 2010 College Summit peer leader from Inglewood High School in Los Angeles, sums this mind-set up best. Now a  graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles, he still aims, in his words, “to embody” the mission of “giving all students from all backgrounds the opportunity to obtain a higher education” so that young people can “realize how golden [they] truly are.”

Keith Frome is the chief executive officer and co-founder of College Summit. College Summit is a member of the America Forward Coalition, a network of over 70 organizations working in every state to drive systemic change in education, early childhood, work-force development and healthy communities.

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Paper compares the economic benefits and costs of a big college completion project

A big boost to college completion would pay off for students and the economy, a new paper finds, but would substantially increase the federal deficit.

Legislators crank up interest in community college completion

The new status quo may be more calls by state lawmakers for better completion rates and work-force outcomes.

How to improve retention of sophomore students (essay)

Everyone in higher education has heard of the sophomore slump. At most colleges and universities, first-year students are welcomed, encouraged and provided programs and services designed to help them navigate new academic expectations and build social networks. But they often come back the following fall with an unavoidable question: “So what do I do now?”

No longer new yet usually without a major (at least at liberal arts colleges) and still seeking a firm social place in the community, many sophomores lack focus and drift. They get into trouble, drop out, get sent home, transfer.

Higher education can no longer ignore the sophomore slump. The sophomore year is the toughest year in college -- it is where retention lives. We have to build on first-year programs to empower sophomore students to define the questions that will guide their academic journeys, to identify the opportunities and activities that will lead to their desired postcollegiate careers, and to develop relationships with faculty members, staff members and peers who will mentor them along the way. Individual institutions will have to determine their own approaches, remaining true to their mission and values. But retaining sophomores should be the overriding goal.

“Sophomore” derives from the Greek sophos, meaning “wise,” and mōros, meaning “fool.” Keeping that notion in mind as we envision and design programs for sophomores is probably a good start. Scholars who have focused on the sophomore year, such as Molly Schaller of St. Louis University and Julie Tetley at the U.S. Air Force Academy, have also advocated for a combination of academic and social programs directed solely toward sophomores. Those programs include dedicated housing, enhanced live-in academic advising, career and major-discovery programs, programs that single sophomores out and acknowledge their presence, and courses specifically designed to help second-year students answer vexing questions about their place and purpose on the campus and beyond.

At St. Lawrence University, we have been working on those questions for about a decade. While we have a longstanding and robust yearlong program for first-year students, like most institutions, we have long known about and acknowledged some of the usual slippage during the sophomore year -- especially between the spring of the first year and the declaration of a major during the spring of the second year. During that time, students, especially young men, often avoid advisers, struggle with time management and overembrace new freedoms from parental and academic structures -- all of which results in them neglecting their academic work.

We have, however, taken steps of the sort suggested by Schaller and Tetley. Under the aegis of a 2007 grant from the Teagle Foundation, we worked with colleagues at Colorado, Connecticut and Skidmore Colleges to learn about the academic and social circumstances of sophomores at liberal arts colleges, and we then produced a white paper. Based on both quantitative and qualitative data gathered at each college, this paper recommended a variety of initiatives, still quite pertinent, that encourage sophomores to define and explore the goals that animate them within the liberal arts. We began by surveying our students about their interactions with their academic advisers, the challenges they felt, their campus involvements and their overall satisfaction. Those results led each college to initiate high-impact programs focused on sophomores.

While those program offerings varied at each institution, we all reconsidered our advising structures and set about designing complementary initiatives. At St. Lawrence, we created a menu of sophomore seminars and held discussion dinners. The seminars were shorter than usual courses, designed to feel different and focused on questions of personal values. (Two sample titles: “The Meaning of Life” and “What’s Important to Me?”) These seminars have continued and, through a 2016 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we are in the process of expanding them as a central element in a program we have called Sophomore Journeys.

Some of our new Sophomore Journeys seminars feature the same type of practical, hands-on, experiential learning that students so often praise in our successful first-year program. Students learn how to create podcasts and documentary videos or explore techniques for designing and assembling books. Other seminars have community-based learning components, like a book group with community members or a semester-long project with a partner social services organization. Still others will address pressing contemporary issues like the diversity of ways to practice Islam; the impact of the sport on national discussions of race, identity and policy; or how to evaluate the influence of Twitter on a presidency.

Every Sophomore Journeys seminar in our rotating menu of courses offers sophomores significant mentoring from faculty members outside the normal structure of office hours through teas and coffees, shared meals, and field trips. And every faculty member who teaches a sophomore seminar receives extra training on how to integrate into classroom discussions advice about selecting a major, obtaining internships and pursuing research opportunities, as well as how to talk more comfortably with students about their extracurricular activities and residential and social environments.

Many institutions, not just liberal arts colleges, can adapt these strategies. Where targeted classes for sophomores may not be possible, departments and programs can reshape their foundational courses and expand elective offerings with an appeal to sophomores in mind. Where overtaxed advisers must restrict their focus for efficiency’s sake to course selection or graduation requirements, colleges and universities can build peer-to-peer mentoring networks.

Attention to the sophomore year works: during the decade ending in 2016, St. Lawrence’s first-year-to-sophomore-year retention has held steady at about 90 percent. But more than numbers, important as they are, colleges and universities have an implicit pedagogical and moral imperative as teachers of undergraduates. The cost of ignoring the sophomore slump is not just lost tuition dollars when we fail to retain our sophomores. It is less engaged, less motivated juniors; it is seniors uncertain about their futures after graduation. Institutional culture and reputation depend on how we help sophomores shape their own best answers to the question “So what do I do now?”

Enticing high school graduates to our institutions implies the responsibility of providing direction and support throughout each of a student’s years on campus. On students’ arrival and first adjustment, and during the years focused on the major, we all know well how to proceed. But now, and most especially, we need to keep focusing on the sophomore year as our “wise fools” seek to find their way -- helping them in discovering passions and direction, finding the modes that work, and leading them where they want to go. That’s just what they should do now.

Sarah Barber is an associate professor of English at St. Lawrence University. Robert Thacker is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Canadian Studies and English and was the first associate dean for academic advising programs at St. Lawrence University.

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Q&A with authors of book about community college data

Is there a better way to use data to increase completion rates and student success at community colleges?

Study shows students more likely to graduate from wealthier institutions

Students are more likely to graduate from colleges that cost more and spend more than others, study finds.

Colleges need "enterprise-level" software to tackle student success issues, company says

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EAB, a research and technology services company, says the time is right for an enterprise-level “student success management system.” Other vendors wonder what took them so long.

What colleges can learn from the military about competency-based learning outcomes (essay)

In a word-association game on “education,” “the United States Army” would probably not be the first response given. But for those who work closely with the Army and understand the depth of the Army’s interest, involvement and expertise in educating Americans, the Army’s lack of recognition in the education field is puzzling.

It is hard to imagine any other institution that invests more time and resources to ensure its personnel are learning -- or one that has more at stake in the outcome of its educational efforts -- than the U.S. Army. American soldiers are serving and representing our nation in more than 130 countries, many in the crucible of ground combat or engaged in other high-risk activities. As both the producer and employer of those it educates, the Army is dependent on the graduates of its many schools and training courses to overcome the multitude of challenges it routinely faces in those countries. The Army has a vested interest in the learning outcomes achieved by its students and, as a result, works extremely hard to optimize those outcomes.

Indeed, the long and distinguished track record of the graduates of the Army’s training and education system stands as proof of the Army’s success in accomplishing its educational goals. In the 241 years of its existence, the Army has produced highly adaptive, agile and innovative soldiers and leaders who have been able to apply critical and creative thinking skills to conquer the myriad challenges thrown their way -- and under some of the most extreme conditions imaginable.

Undervalued Learning Outcomes

That the Army is not widely recognized for its expertise in education is no doubt largely because education is not its core mission -- it exists to fight and win the nation’s wars. To do that, however, the Army requires educated soldiers. Training, educating and developing soldiers is, thus, an integral means of achieving its ultimate end.

Many people also hold the view that the Army’s training and education system is primarily just vocational, skills-based training that doesn’t require the type of cognitive engagement that America’s colleges and universities purport to develop within their graduates. But producing technicians is only part of the Army’s training and education mission requirement. The larger, and by far the most important, part is its obligation to develop young men and women who can solve what are frequently complex problems while simultaneously completing highly technical tasks.

Thus, as much as any academic institutions (and arguably more so), the Army is in search of the holy grail of education: developing learners who can transfer and apply their learning in different environments to achieve optimal results no matter what the conditions.

Perhaps the largest reason for the failure of many to recognize the Army as a premier learning organization, however, is that the Army doesn’t record its learning outcomes in the ubiquitous Carnegie unit (credit hour) format. In fact, the absence of a registrar-validated transcript with learning recorded in credit hours is possibly the single biggest reason for soldiers receiving inadequate credit for the learning that occurs during their Army training, education and experiences.

Without that acceptably certified record of learning, soldiers leave the Army with a vast amount of assessed and validated knowledge, skills, attributes and competencies for which they more often than not receive little credit. Their educational outcomes are imperfectly communicated and poorly understood by employers and educators alike. And while many higher education institutions and businesses would surely like to give soldiers the benefit of the doubt and award them credit for their Army learning outcomes, they face risks from their own accrediting and licensing bodies and are limited in their ability to do so. The end result is that soldiers are often left with little to show for their extensive, taxpayer-funded training and education.

Assessing the Problem

For the Army, the issue is not as much a matter of receiving recognition for its educational outcomes as it is an issue of readiness. Critical readiness funds are being diverted from operations to pay for unemployment compensation for soldiers who aren’t being hired, in part because of their lack of certified trade credentials. Meanwhile other funds are siphoned off for educational benefits to pay for learning that soldiers already received in the Army but are forced to repeat because it wasn’t recorded in a manner acceptable to colleges and accrediting and licensing bodies.

Thus, garnering publicly recognized academic credit for the Army and its soldiers was one of the first tasks leaders took on upon the establishment of Army University in August 2015. After reviewing the problem, Army University leaders concluded that devising a means of recording Army learning in terms of credit hours, seeking academic accreditation for its numerous schools and granting soldiers academic degrees was fraught with numerous drawbacks -- and ultimately provided only a partial solution to the problem.

Expenses involved in paying for accreditation, hiring degreed or credentialed faculty, establishing a registrar and hiring additional personnel to perform the many other tasks required by accrediting bodies would rapidly mount and eventually become prohibitive. Meanwhile, the vast majority of learning in the Army is difficult to measure in credit hours. Instead, it must be measured by a soldier’s demonstrated ability to apply the knowledge, skills and attributes learned in a classroom or training area, or as a result of one’s experiences, to accomplish a task. In short, the Army primarily uses competency-based education and experiential learning methods to achieve its developmental goals.

Effectively Measuring Learning Outcomes

Army University leaders came to recognize that what was needed to solve this problem was an acceptable method of capturing and recording the learning outcomes of its predominantly competency-based training and education system. They also soon realized that they were not alone in their search and unintentionally found themselves immersed in the contentious American education debate over measuring student outcomes.

The Army was, in essence, struggling with the same challenge that plagues many American colleges and industry today -- its learning outcomes are not being recorded in a way that is truly meaningful for employers or educators in providing them adequate information on students’ or employees’ distinct knowledge, skills and attributes. The resulting inability of employers to understand a potential employee’s competencies leads to wasteful redundancies and inefficiencies as time and resources are spent re-educating and retraining students and employees to develop abilities they may already possess.

Army University leaders quickly came to understand that several organizations had already done much work to try to measure and improve student outcomes, such as the U.S. Department of Education in its Experimental Sites Initiative. Among ex-sites many experiments that are of immediate interest to the Army are those dealing with CBE, prior learning assessments and direct assessments -- all of which offer the possibility of developing an acceptable method of measuring and recording the learning outcomes of nontraditional education practices like those used by the Army. The Educational Quality Through Innovative Partnerships, or EQUIP, program further enhances the prospect of developing a solution to this problem.

Equally encouraging to Army University leaders were the efforts of the many academic institutions and educational foundations that are also seeking solutions to this problem, such as programs funded and supported by the Lumina Foundation, like the Competency-Based Education Network and Degree Qualifications Profile/Tuning program.

Even more specific to the Army’s purposes is the Lumina-funded Multi-State Collaborative on Military Credit initiative. That program’s stated goal of advancing “best practices designed to ease the transition of veterans and their families from military life to college campuses, with special reference to translating competencies acquired through military training and experiences into milestones toward completing a college degree or earning a certificate or license,” is perfectly aligned with Army University’s efforts to increase the recognition soldiers receive for their Army training and education.

Informed by these and the many other similar ongoing efforts in academe, Army University is establishing partnerships with such groups and working on its own tailored solutions. In 2017, the Army began prototype testing of MIL-CRED (Military Credentials), a microcredentialing ecosystem that offers the capability of capturing soldiers’ learning outcomes at the granular level in a way that is meaningful to Army leaders, talent managers and soldiers themselves -- both while they serve and as they transition out of the Army. The system records soldiers’ learning outcomes as microcredentials (badges, credentials and certificates that contain the specific learning outcomes of a training event, school course or experience) and populates them onto a soldier’s learner profile, or portfolio. That profile can then serve as a comprehensive digital résumé of the soldier’s assessed and validated knowledge, skills, abilities, competencies and other learning outcomes, which colleges and universities could then use to award soldiers credit and properly place them in their academic programs.

Unlike academic transcripts, which have limited value outside of academe, the learner profile has the added benefit of being able to serve as a living document to which academic, military and industry learning achievements from training, education and experience alike can be added continuously throughout the learner’s lifetime. In this, it is similar to the work being done by the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning, which, in conjunction with Salesforce, is working to establish a record of a “learner’s academic and professional accomplishments across multiple institutions and experiences, building a portfolio that includes credits, competencies, microcertificates, degrees and other records of achievement.”

In an era of limited resources, we will increasingly have no other option but to become more efficient in how we achieve our nation’s desired learning outcomes. While somewhat late to this problem, the Army’s demonstrated success in tackling big challenges and educating adults offers the potential for it to be a leading partner with academic, government and industry leaders when it comes to student outcomes. The fairly recent establishment of Army University has already led to the development of several meaningful relationships and collaborative efforts that have greatly aided the Army’s efforts in this area. For its part, the Army is able to bring value to these partnerships by sharing with its partners the Army’s vast experience and proven success in educating nontraditional learners. Recent shifts in college student demographics -- away from the traditional recent high school graduates and toward diverse and nontraditional adult learners -- mirrors what has long been the bulk of the Army’s own demographic. Colleges and universities without much experience dealing with the distinct needs and qualities of these learners would do well to study the Army’s approach to training and education that has led to so many successful results with them.

Although it is rarely recognized for its role as an educational organization, the Army has a long and distinguished track record in training and educating adults who have proven their ability to fight and think their way through all types of challenges. As such, the Army, along with academe and industry, has the undeniable ability to play a major contributing role in developing a method of measuring -- and, most important, improving -- learning outcomes that could prove to be of great value to our nation.

Steven Delvaux is vice provost for academic affairs at Army University in Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

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