Innovating to get more college students to degree

I learned a lot about emerging strategies for college degree completion at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges’ National Conference on Trusteeship in Dallas last week.

It should come as no surprise that the topic would hold value for me as a member of Wayne State University’s Board of Governors. As my colleague Sarah Szurpicki recently wrote , our university has been in the headlines a lot because of our degree completion gap between white and black students. A recent Education Trust report said Wayne State has the steepest racial graduation gap in the country – with only a three-year average of 11 percent of African Americans finishing their degree in six years compared to 44 percent of white students. While Wayne State’s six year graduation rates for both black and white students have improved since the 2012-2014 timeframe outlined in the Ed Trust report, the university recognizes that it needs to improve its graduation rates and quicken the time to degree for our undergraduate student population.

A pre-conference workshop at AGB explored trends that helped to bolster completion and knock down completion barriers. Among the trends the workshop explored:

  • As states have disinvested from higher education, America’s parental college loan debt load has grown, but it’s difficult to quantify because those numbers are not tracked like student debt. Because more parents are being forced to invest tens of thousands of dollars into their children’s college education, college affordability is increasingly limited to the families that are wealthy.
  • Colleges are finding that they need to attract more men to go into academic advising. Factors such as relatively low pay and perceptions about gender work roles have left the field overrepresented by women. Given the well-documented struggles of male college students, it makes sense to offer incentives and heavily recruitment to attract more men.
  • 40% of American colleges and universities are reporting a decline in applications from foreign students for the fall 2017 semester. Given the rich academic, research and cultural contributions that foreign students often bring to American campuses, this is a very negative development.
  • Universities are trying to stem the effect of these trends by introducing innovations to how education is delivered. For example, Florida International University’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching has “flipped” instruction in some core courses to make them more student-focused and saw student passage rates increase from 40% to 80%. FIU also used data to strengthen teaching and learning in 19 “gateway” courses that had previously been stumbling blocks for college freshmen.
  • Universities are increasingly grappling with students’ mental health challenges. College success is not just about grades. With large number of students relying on medication for mental health treatment, universities need to be prepared to handle the issues that prevent them from graduating.
  • Universities are recognizing that if they want to boost their completion rates, they need to create pipelines for K-12 students and engage in more efforts to strengthen K-12 systems that serve as feeders to their campuses. A model is the Long Beach College Promise, which connects California State University-Long Beach with and Long Beach City College and the Long Beach Unified School District.

For years, high schools in Michigan have bragged about the number of their students who are accepted to college. It would be wise for both secondary schools and universities to recognize that college acceptance rates are a meaningless metric. It’s college degree attainment that matters.

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