The annual Degree Completion Award is open to all APLU members. A panel of eight reviewers examined the applications to determine the finalists. The award winner will be announced and all finalists will be recognized at the APLU Annual Meeting, November 11-13, in New Orleans, Louisiana. To highlight the winning institution’s degree completion efforts APLU’s President, Peter McPherson, will visit the winning campus to meet with university leaders, students, and external stakeholders to celebrate the school’s role as a national leader in developing innovation programs to increase retention and graduation.
“It’s not enough to just help more students access college. We have to help more students graduate,” said APLU President Peter McPherson. “That’s why we’re spotlighting five innovative public universities that have made exemplary strides in the number and share of their students completing degrees. In recent years, public universities have united behind a degree completion-driven agenda. Our Degree Completion Award finalists are showing how public universities can continue to make student success progress in years to come.”
More details on the finalists efforts are below.
Arizona State University (ASU) established an integrated and independent set of tools for advising, courseware, and mindset interventions to advance student success on campus. Following years of tepid gains in its retention rate, ASU introduced eAdvisor and a first-of-its-kind degree mapping tool in 2006 to help students chart their expected path to a degree and reduce unnecessary credits that don’t make progress toward a degree. A decade later, the university integrated its advising tools with a predictive analytics system that provides an early alert system, updated nightly, to help professors and advisors identify and assist students who encounter academic challenges. ASU also adopted adaptive courseware for eight of its critical gateway courses, enrolling tens of thousands of students per year, to better engage students, aiding their success in the course and, subsequently, their degree path. Finally, the university implemented a mindset intervention program that pairs new students with peer mentors who can help them understand their potential for growth in college and give them the confidence needed to overcome hurdles they’re facing in their studies. The multifaceted approach produced key gains, with student retention increasing by 8 percent between 2006 and 2016 and the four-year graduation rate climbing from 38 percent to 50 percent over the same period.
The University of Memphis launched the Finish Line Program in 2013 when the university experienced a decline in the number of non-traditional students enrolling. The program re-recruits students in good academic standing who had earned 90 or more credit hours earned, but stopped pursuing their degree just shy of graduation. The university found that exhausted financial aid and related financial challenges were the main reasons such students were withdrawing. Once re-enrolled through the Finish Line Program, University of Memphis academic advisors work with the students to evaluate previously earned credit and ways to expedite graduation. What’s more, students can also earn credit for prior learning through exams. A third of students in the program also receive financial assistance through the program beyond what they get through state and federal support. On average, students re-enrolling need only 11 credits to graduate and nearly a third of students needed only one course to graduate. Half of students re-enrolling through the program are first-generation, 70 percent are from underrepresented minority groups, and three-quarters are low-income. Since the program launched in 2013, the program has graduated nearly 500 students, leading to 5,289 additional credit hours. Another 325 students are currently working on degree completion plans with their advisor. The Finish Line has played a critical role in significant increases in University of Memphis six-year graduation rates over the past three years, with an increase of 4.5 percent overall.
The University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) created a five-day academic boot camp for incoming freshman to increase academic success for new students. The boot camp, NevadaFIT, provides rigorous and realistic exposure to college-level classes so students know what to expect on the first day of class. It also eases them into the style, pace, and intensity of college courses. Students in the program are organized into groups of six that are guided by an undergraduate mentor who forms a relationship with the students that lasts beyond the five-day boot camp. Starting in 2013 with 48 biology students, the program has been expanded to include 1,600 students across all majors at the institution. The first-year retention rate for students participating in the initiative is 87 percent, compared with 81 percent with students not participating in the initiative. NevadaFIT also produced significant gains for participating first-generation, Pell, and minority students achieving higher retention and graduation rates than the institutional rate. And the retention gap between participating and non-participating students grows over subsequent semesters. The four-year graduation rate for students in the first cohort of NevadaFIT students was 42 percent, compared with 32 percent among non-participants.
The University of Rhode Island (URI) implemented a new comprehensive student success plan in 2010, focusing on a new strategic financial aid allocation model, instituting curriculum pathway maps, carefully monitoring semester credit completion rates, investments in new professional academic advisors, and establishing an early-alert system to help identify students who were struggling. URI overhauled its general education program to help students better build skills for the 21st century workforce. The university also increased the number of students receiving financial aid to 92 percent of those demonstrating need, up from 77 percent in 2010. The multifaceted approach produced significant student success gains. Over the last decade, first-year student retention increased by 8 percent and the four-year graduation rate increased by 14 percentage points. For the university’s rapidly growing population of Pell students, the six-year graduation rate increased by 13 percentage points over the last four years – halving the achievement gap between students receiving Pell Grants and their peers. The six-year graduation gap among historically underrepresented students and other students was similarly cut in half over the same period, even as significantly more minority students enrolled. URI’s transformation has produced a significant return on investment and has built pride within the community.
Wayne State University created a Student Retention Initiative in 2011, investing more than $10 million in student success over the following five years. The initiative worked to improve student success by hiring professional academic advisers, improving curriculum in general education courses, increasing support for faculty teaching development, bolstering support for underprepared students, establishing first-year experiences for new students, and strengthening financial aid. The university also established a student retention and tracking system to monitor student progress. Finally, Wayne State recently created the WSU Warrior Way Back Program, a debt forgiveness program for adult learners who cannot return to college because of past-due balances. The comprehensive approach to student success has yielded remarkable gains, with Wayne State’s graduation rate nearly doubling in six years, increasing from 26 to 47 percent. Gains have been particularly pronounced among first-generation, low-income, and minority students. In light of this progress, the university is now planning new efforts to further reduce educational disparities and to improve our graduation rate.
Past winners of the APLU Degree Completion Award and previous iterations of the honor are: University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa (2017); University of California, Riverside (2016); Morgan State University (2015); University of Tennessee, Knoxville (2014); Florida State University (2014); Georgia State University (2013); San Francisco State University (2013).