How to Avoid the Trend of Falling Graduation Rates

December 9, 2015 Kristen Hicks

While higher education has its critics, especially when it comes to the high cost of loans students take out, there’s still a pretty strong argument to make for the value of having a college degree. Research shows that students with degrees make significantly more over their lifetimes than the cost of the loans they take out, which would seem to make the cost/benefit analysis simple enough. Except that much of the student debt held by people in this country belongs to students who didn’t make it to graduation and aren’t getting the benefits that come with a college degree.

This is a problem that colleges (and their critics) have been aware of for some time. Most schools have been making significant efforts to provide the resources needed to bring their graduation rates up. So far, those efforts haven’t paid off to the degree schools need them to. Recent research found that the completion rate for students who started college in 2009 was only 52.9%. That’s a 2% decrease from the rates for students who started a year earlier and means that close to half of all students who start college and take on debt are failing to get the degree that provides an earning benefit for their investment.

What Colleges Can Do to Improve Retention

You can’t save every student. Many will encounter family or economic emergencies that are out of your control and will put that diploma out of reach. Many of the students at risk of dropping out can be helped with the right resources. As in most things, though, the best solutions call for an investment in time and money.

1. Identify the students who need you.

Some students will be fine and reach that finish line whether or not you provide them with special resources and attention. The students who need the most help aren’t always good at asking. You may think you’re already on top of this by funneling resources to those you’ve identified as at-risk students—those performing in the bottom 10% or so—but research from the Education Advisory Board suggests that schools need to broaden their idea of which students need help.

Expanding your retention resources to include both the at-risk students and students who fall in the “murky middle”—the 43% of students who finish their first year with a GPA between 2.0 and 3.0—could make a big impact on graduation rates.

2. Provide tutoring and advising so students always have someone to turn to for help – and make sure they know it’s there.

Most colleges already provide tutoring and advising to students; it’s that last part that’s harder. Your best students who need those resources the least are the ones most likely to know they’re there and seek them out. Making sure your at-risk students (and those in the murky middle) are aware of the guidance and study help is what will really make the difference.

A program at St. Petersburg College saw a significant increase in the number of students taking advantage of their tutoring resources—and of the learning outcomes those students experienced—when they both increased accessibility of their tutors and learning centers and promoted them more to students. ASAP, a program at CUNY, also got impressive results by increasing the frequency with which students met with advisers and tutors, as well as providing help with some of the smaller economic needs of the students, such as free MetroCards to get to and from school.

Both programs addressed the need for more focused guidance, as well as the economic challenges of students. St. Petersburg did so by actively promoting the “free” nature of the resources they provided and making more tutors and counselors available for more hours, and ASAP tackled the economic concerns more directly by covering the costs of transportation and textbooks that many students find difficult to manage on their own. The results of these programs speak to how often issues off campus contribute to student success on campus. You can’t do anything to control the experiences a student has outside of class, but providing them with advisers to help them work through unforeseen challenges can make a big difference.

3. Implement a culture of assessment.

A culture of assessment not only contributes to improving graduation rates on its own, but can help you with each of the other items on the list. When you make assessment a priority, it provides you with:

  • Valuable data that not only helps you identify which students need extra help, but shows you what they’re specifically struggling with so you know what kind of help to provide.
  • The ability to provide detailed feedback to students that empowers them to improve their study efforts.
  • An ongoing means of following student progress throughout their years in college, so you can tell if there’s a significant change in their performance from one semester to the next and how different efforts influence them over time.

All that adds up to more students who get the help they need when they need it, which makes them much more likely to make it to graduation day.

Graduation rates influence how likely students are to choose your school, affect your ability to keep your accreditation, and provide a measure of success for how well you’re serving your students. You owe it to your students and the school to invest in getting more students to that end point so they can enjoy the value you know a college degree can provide.


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