If graduation is the goal, what’s your strategy?

If graduation is the goal, what’s your strategy?

By Chrissy Coley on Monday, September 14, 2015


The numbers are sobering. An estimated 400,000 students drop out of college every year. More than 40 percent of American students who begin at four-year colleges don’t earn a degree in six years. When community colleges are added to the mix, the numbers are even more dismal: Only about half of students actually earn a degree.

So why do students leave before they graduate and what can higher education institutions do to change it?

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently surveyed college leaders to hear about their retention and completion strategies and published the results in a report, “Student Success: Building a Culture for Retention and Completion on College Campuses.” Here’s the breakdown of the five most common approaches, and the percentage of institutions that employ them, to help keep students in school:

  • 26 percent: a comprehensive strategy in which student success efforts span the entire student experience in and out of the classroom from initial enrollment through graduation
  • 17 percent: a basic strategy that focuses on the basics of student success with a smattering of other programs
  • 23 percent: a first-year strategy that primarily focuses on making sure students get through the first year
  • 22 percent: a graduation strategy that includes a more balanced focus on persistence to degree completion
  • 12 percent: an academic strategy with a strong focus on the curricular elements of student success

Each approach has its merits. But because student success is increasingly defined by completion, I’d recommend you pursue a graduation strategy. Although a comprehensive strategy may be ideal, not all campuses have the budget or resources to implement a full-scale student retention program, whereas a graduation strategy includes the most viable elements of all the approaches.

A graduation strategy is straightforward: Get students on the right track as quickly as possible and keep them on track to timely degree completion by helping them enroll in the right courses at the right time in the right sequence while earning the right grades to maintain satisfactory academic progress. You can craft an effective graduation strategy by focusing on a few key principles:

Meaningful engagement: Students are more likely to stay in school when they feel integrated within their academic and social communities.

Clear pathways: Structure the curriculum so that students can more effectively identify their desired program of study, understand requirements, and track progress.  Make it easy for them to preregister for the upcoming semester, apply for financial aid, or conduct business transactions.

Early detection: Students struggle with academic, personal, health, or financial challenges. Intervene early and direct them to the appropriate resources—before they get into real trouble.

Personalized learning: Help students earn their degree more quickly by recognizing prior learning and empowering them to move at their own pace based on demonstrated competencies.

Insightful analytics: Equip your senior leaders, program coordinators, and academic advisors with the information they need to understand which students are most likely to drop out, when, and why. Use data to inform decisions, develop initiatives, allocate resources, and track outcomes.

And of course, technology can either supplement your efforts or do the heavy lifting for you. To read more details on the other top strategies and see which one best fits your institution’s needs, download the 2015 report

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