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APLU Announces 2019 Degree Completion Award Finalists

September 17, 2019

Washington, DC – As part of its ongoing efforts to increase degree completion, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) today named the University of Central Florida, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and the University of Rhode Island as finalists for its 2019 Degree Completion Award. The annual award works to identify, recognize, and reward institutions that employ innovative approaches to improve degree completion while ensuring educational quality.

The annual Degree Completion Award is open to all APLU members. A panel of 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 10-12, in San Diego, California. 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 innovative programs to increase retention and graduation.
 
“We’re thrilled to spotlight this year’s APLU Degree Completion Award finalists for their exceptional work advancing degree completion,” said APLU President Peter McPherson. “Public universities are the nation’s great engines of upward mobility and the finalists are at the leading edge of further expanding college access, equity, and completion.”
 
The Degree Completion Award is one part of APLU’s robust work to advance college access, equity, and completion. The award complements the association’s Powered by Publics effort, which convenes 130 APLU member institutions collaborating within 16 transformation clusters working to solve different pieces of the student success puzzle. Collectively, the schools have pledged to aim to increase college access, eliminate the achievement gap, and award hundreds of thousands more degrees by 2025.
 
More details on the Degree Completion Award finalists’ efforts are below.
 
University of Central Florida
The University of Central Florida (UCF) has led a multidimensional effort to eliminate barriers to student success. UCF has worked to expand access, offering guaranteed admission for students from six regional state colleges, providing direct admission to Florida students with grade point averages putting them in the top 10 percent of their class, and a six-week summer bridge program to ensure that students who enroll can successfully make the transition to college. UCF has also created programs to ensure academic success once enrolled, such as the school’s PRIME STEM Career Academy, which provides tools to first-generation and low-income students preparing them for STEM careers. A mentoring program, meanwhile, pairs African American students with staff and faculty mentors who help them achieve personal, academic, and career goals. Finally, the university has implemented a completion grants program providing emergency funding to students nearing graduation who have run out of money to pay for college just shy of earning their degree. This holistic student-centered transformation has yielded a host of progress: Last year, freshman retention rates for African American and Hispanic students exceeded the university’s overall retention rate for the first time. The gap between African American and Hispanic students’ six-graduation rates and that of white students are now just a third and a quarter of what they were a decade ago, respectively. The six-year graduation rate for African American students trails that of white students by 3.7 percentage points, compared with 23.5 percentage points nationally. The rate for Hispanic students is just 1 percentage points less than that for white students, compared with a 12 percentage point gap nationally.
 
In 2011, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte launched a three-pronged approach to improving student success through its 49er Graduation Initiative. The effort engages students as active agents in their own success, proactively advises at-risk students and advances policies that optimize students’ path to graduation. Through the university’s Prospect for Success curriculum, more than 90 percent of incoming FTIC students take a first-semester academic engagement class centered on building their commitment to success, developing critical thinking skills and enhancing their cultural awareness. UNC Charlotte also systematically uses technology to identify emerging indicators of academic risk and then proactively connect students with advisors to help them get back on the path to timely graduation. Finally, the University has created a graduation metrics platform to help departments and colleges identify common curricular barriers to completion and address them on an ongoing basis. This process led to changes to prerequisite sequences that created unnecessary hurdles, changes to semester schedules to offer critical progression courses year-round, changes to course content and improvements in faculty advising. The wide-ranging approach to student-centered reform has helped the University increase its six-year graduation rate by 10 percent since the 2009 and increase its four-year graduation rate by 17 percent over the same period – to 43 percent for the 2015 cohort. Now UNC Charlotte is focused on using a continuous improvement framework to build on these gains.    
 
The University of Rhode Island (URI) launched a multipronged approach to improving student success in its 2010 academic strategic plan. The effort has produced impressive results. URI’s undergraduate degree completions increased by 78 percent from a baseline average of 2,019 per year to more than 3,600 degrees awarded last year, reflecting a cumulative increase of 10,000 degrees awarded over the past decade. The university implemented a new financial aid model, which helped increase the share of students with financial need receiving aid, from 77 percent in 2010 to 92 percent in 2016. URI made strategic investments in professional advisors and curriculum maps for all programs as well. A new Office for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning engages faculty in new pedagogies, improving student success and academic quality. A heightened focus on high-impact experiential learning resulted in a doubling (from 4,010 to 8,541) of the number of students participating in credit-bearing experiential learning opportunities. An early-alert advising system identifies at-risk students and provides advisors with resources fostering academic success. Finally, the university created a winter J-term helping students who have fallen behind get back on track. Overall, four- and six-year graduation rates increased by 14.5 percent and 8.4 percent, reflecting gains of 38 percent and 14 percent, respectively. Among students receiving Pell grants, the six-year graduation increased from 47 percent to 61 percent, reducing the equity gap from 15 percent to 7 percent. This progress was achieved even as the number of Pell students increased by 76 percent between 2008 and 2013. The six-year graduation equity gap for underrepresented students was also cut in half over the same period. Student success gains have created unanticipated institutional benefits with increased retention creating revenue that contributed to supporting 60 new faculty positions, which will further advance student success.

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