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APLU Announces 2022 Degree Completion Award Finalists

October 27, 2022

Washington, D.C. – As part of its ongoing efforts to support public research universities’ efforts to increase degree completion, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) today named Florida Atlantic University, the University of South Alabama, the University of Texas at San Antonio, and Virginia Commonwealth University as finalists for its 2022 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 outside reviewers examined the applications to determine the finalists. The award winner will be announced at the APLU Annual Meeting, November 6-8 in Denver, Colorado.

“Ensuring students complete a life-changing college education is at the very heart of public research universities’ mission,” said APLU President Mark Becker. “Congratulations to this year’s Degree Completion Award finalists. They have made significant strides in student success, particularly among students from underrepresented backgrounds. Their efforts deserve broader attention.”

More details on the Degree Completion Award finalists’ efforts are below.

Florida Atlantic University (FAU) launched a comprehensive plan to address equity gaps, advance student success, and increase the university’s graduation rate. After taking an exhaustive look at student success outcomes, disaggregated across a variety of characteristics, FAU determined that far too many students were lacking adequate support in entry-level courses. To address this, FAU launched a cross-institutional analytics platform to help inform and track the effectiveness of student success interventions. These reforms included: the adoption of standardized “flight plans,” enabling students to easily see the optimal progression of courses to a degree; addressing course bottlenecks that were preventing students from graduating in a timely manner; and innovative financial assistance incentivizing students to register for the next semester. The multipronged approach contributed to FAU more than doubling its four-year graduation rate from 19 percent in 2014 to 50 percent in 2021. Crucially, gains have been largest among historically underserved groups, including Black, Latino, and Pell-eligible students.

The University of South Alabama (USA) launched a Student Success Team in 2010. The team used data and information to bridge institutional silos, create completion improvement programs, and expand USA's culture of student success. By adopting a comprehensive, student-focused philosophy, USA focused on removing barriers and continuously improving students' experiences to help them persist and complete a degree. Since 2011, USA’s efforts have resulted in more than doubling the four-year graduation rate. USA continues to renew its commitment to serving the community and increasing the enrollment of a diverse student body, including students of color, Pell-eligible students, and students who are served through our close partnerships with regional community colleges that support them as they move between institutions.

The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) placed a focus on improving student success outcomes through the creation of a campus-wide leadership team. The team identified academic advising and other related support structures as playing a critical role in the success of students. Using a multi-phased approach, UTSA strategically and systematically transformed its advising model to better serve students — particularly underrepresented and first-generation students — and improve retention and degree completion. Beginning in 2014, UTSA shifted to a centralized academic advising model with the following goals: designing a structure to facilitate the assignment of caseloads to academic advisors; increasing advisor availability; promoting consistent policies and procedures for advising throughout the university to include basic standards of care; encouraging the development of stronger mentoring relationships between advisors and students; improving communication channels among advisors as well as between advisors and campus departments; and utilizing predictive analytics to conduct strategic, proactive outreach. Since 2013, UTSA’s first-year retention has increased by 14 percentage points; four- and six-year graduation rates have increased by 10 and nine percentage points, respectively; and degrees awarded per year have increased by 41 percentage points.

Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) has worked to establish a culture where “student success is everyone’s job.” In working to ensure that success, the university created a multifaceted approach centered on access and equity. VCU elevated its degree completion initiatives to be part of a larger discussion about culture change on campus. This approach has three key drivers: affordability, curricular redesign, and faculty engagement. Against the backdrop of gains in overall graduation rates, VCU’s six-year graduation rate for Black students exceeded the university’s overall rate. The university has also nearly eliminated graduation gaps for Latino and low-income students. Starting in 2019, VCU overhauled its fee process to create a more predictable billing structure, thus reducing student anxiety about cost. The university bolstered faculty engagement efforts to improve the experiences of first-generation students and Black and Latino male-identified students. VCU also reimagined the first-year experience by redesigning academic offerings around students’ interests and needs. This redesign included customization in students’ first-year student success courses and the creation of a Summer Scholars Program, allowing students to begin their academic career in the months prior to the traditional fall semester, which has led to greater student success outcomes.

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