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HE Challenges: Combating declining completion rates

Last time we started to explore the top four challenges facing higher education in the US. Preferring to offer up innovative case studies from across the HE sector (rather than just discuss the issue) today's blog will look at declining completion rates, and ways in which some universities are addressing them.

The facts

The National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) released a report in 2017, demarcating the specifics of the “drop out” or (more polite phrase) completion rate problem among colleges. The report covered the six-year completion rates of the cohort of students (which the study refers to as the 2011 cohort) who began college in 2011. Here are some of the salient facts:

  • Four-year public and private nonprofit schools: 65% and 76% graduating at these colleges graduating, respectively.
  • Four-year for-profit colleges: completion rate is 35%.
  • Public (two-year) community colleges: 38%.
  • Just short of half of all community college students drop out entirely.
  • While the 2011 completion rate shows an uptick of 2.1% from the 2010 cohort
  • Both the 2010 and 2011 cohorts are still below the pre-recession completion rate of 55,8% (which in itself is still nothing to write home about).

The problem

With completion rates nearing crisis levels, there is no shortage of studies to analyze why; naturally this is a complex issue with a number of components, but the the consensus is that the following are the major reasons:

  1. Funding
  2. Poor High School preparation
  3. Wrong college, degree or major choices
  4. Family and work conflicts
  5. Lack of quality engagement with teachers and professors
  6. A demotivating learning environment

I’ve hyperlinked to some thought starter articles on each topic, as I’m going to spend the rest of the blog exploring some great inventions some universities are making to bridge these gaps, and improve completion rates.

I must also add that completion rates are a sensitive subject, from a government policy point of view it is a delicate balance between pressuring colleges to increase completion rates, running the risk that standards may drop or admissions criteria may change in order to improve completion.

The problem is not only at colleges, high schools certainly have a role to play. I hope to explore the various preparatory roles high schools can play to produce seniors that are more ready, and aware of what college entails, and who in some cases may even have achieved a few college credits to ease the transition.

The solutions

Two of these deserve some attention:

1. Flexibility

Technology-based flexibility and scheduling solutions have seen a number of universities address low completion rates by providing the right amount of courses, in the right rooms, to an optimal number of students.

New Mexico State University found they scheduled and designed classes in line only with what academics wanted to teach, and when. Due to student push back (some having to wait a term to attend a certain popular course) and lowering completion rates administrators realized they were “flying blind”; they installed analytics software Ad Astra to determine which popular courses were not being offered often enough, and which classes were taught too often. Consequently the college has now streamlined courses, based on real data, and scheduling courses to fit in with student-demand rather than academic supply. Treating students as customers can greatly improve relations, graduation rates and revenue.

Volunteer State Community College in Tennessee discovered that declining attendance on Fridays was due to students having more family and work commitments on that day. A bold decision by administrators to move to a four day, compacted schedule has improved efficiencies (faculty now have Fridays to catch up on admin and attend meetings) as well as student retention and satisfaction, as they can achieve greater work/life/college balance.

New York College of Dentistry in 2014 moved from full lecture classes to small-group scheduling with a view to improving learning outcomes, student/professor engagement as well as efficiencies. Now, for instance, the anatomy curriculum is taught over 32 groups, with 12 students each, and is taught 16 times a day!

2. Support

The University of Kent (UK) is quickly establishing a global benchmark in understanding, designing and providing holistic student support programs. Dissatisfied with not only low retention rates, but also a critical lack of insight, the university implemented a two phase program called “The Student Success Project”. Phase 1 ran 2015 - 2017 and primarily made an empirical study of student success differentials alongside substantial research with the student body to identify key trends and issues regarding student success and retention. Phase 1 interventions included:

  • Drop in sessions: Managed by course leaders, but staffed by TAs (teaching assistants) these are dedicated times and spaces where students can get hands on, proactive, subject specific academic support in a friendly, informal environment.
  • Academic Skills Development Week was introduced to support students in study skills, placements and employability, with a view to appreciating how best to select and choose curriculum majors.
  • Academic Peer Mentoring and Numeracy Mentoring, a network that connects more experienced students with newer course attendees to bolster academic adaptation and development.
  • Progress profiles summarize a student's academic progress succinctly, highlighting academic strengths and weaknesses, and facilitating staff/student conversations about progress.
  • The VSA (Virtual Student Advisor) is a “one-stop” dashboard that presents tailored student support content to individual students, helping them to find available resources quickly.

Closing thoughts

It’s not all doom and gloom in higher education when it comes to completion rates - there are great many colleges and universities that are taking their responsibilities seriously enough to implement expensive, and time consuming programs. It must also be acknowledged, though - as I indicated in the piece - high schools must do their bit and ensure students arrive on their first day of college with a mature, clear-eyed view of what to anticipate, and what is expected of them. They must also have the skills and academic maturity to make that transition as smoothly as possible.

Till next time, when we’ll explore how some colleges are addressing the increasingly tempting option of private corporate funding, and how to balance fiscal need with academic independence.

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