Improving College Completion in the South, One Student at a Time

April 14, 2010

Colleges that have succeeded in improving their students' retention and graduation rates tend to have two things in common, says a new report on promising practices for increasing college completion. Those institutions' administrators and faculty members are clearly focused on making progress on those measures, and their programs are geared toward helping students on an individual basis.

The report, released on Wednesday by the Southern Regional Education Board, highlights the practices of 15 public four-year institutions that enroll large numbers of low-income students and have improved their graduation rates. The authors of the report, "Promoting a Culture of Student Success: How Colleges and Universities Are Improving Degree Completion," said college completion should be the top priority for colleges and must be at the core of campus culture.

"We are pushing the Southern states, particularly, to make this a No. 1 priority," said Cheryl D. Blanco, vice president for special projects at the Southern Regional Education Board and one of the authors of the report. "I've been in higher education a long time, and it's the first time in memory for me that there has been such a concerted effort to increase student success."

The group's focus on improving college completion comes as a number of states, nonprofit groups, and foundations, including the Lumina Foundation for Education and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have made the issue a priority. President Obama has called for the United States to be best in the world by 2020 in the proportion of its residents with a college degree or credential.

Model Institutions

The universities highlighted in the Southern board's report have developed a wide variety of efforts to improve retention and graduation even though they serve large numbers of students from low-income families, who tend to drop out at higher-than-average rates. Those efforts include training for faculty members to improve student advising, first-year experience programs that help students navigate their freshman year, and early-alert programs that help faculty and campus advisers identify students who might drop out.

The report draws attention to institutions like Western Kentucky University, which has an Academic Advising and Retention Center that provides tutoring and advising. The center also provides extra advising, free tutoring, and monitored study hours for academically at-risk students through the Best Expectations program. The college also offers training for faculty advisers through the Campus Advising Network.

"When I first started teaching 25 years ago, no one really told me about how important advising or retention was," said Ellen W. Bonaguro, an associate dean at the college. "The role of faculty has expanded so much."

Also highlighted in the report is another institution in Kentucky, Murray State University. Its six-year graduation rate is slightly above the national average of 55 percent, even though the university enrolls large numbers of low-income students. Nearly one-third of students at the college receive Pell Grants.

Murray State embraces a number of the retention techniques highlighted in the report, which especially praises the university's development of eight residential colleges and cites them as a key factor in the success of the university's students.

Creating Communities

Faculty members are assigned to each of those social and academic hubs, and the colleges are home to the First-Year Leader program, through which upperclassmen help freshmen adjust to campus life. The colleges have contributed to an increase in freshman persistence rates, which have climbed from 62 percent to 70 percent in recent years, according to the report.

"It has really served as an anchoring program that has given us some of our success in retention," said Randy J. Dunn, president at Murray State, who added that the program strives "to really create a community that envelops and pulls in the students literally from the day they arrive on campus."

The college has a retention committee through which representatives from all segments of the university evaluate strategies in that area. Murray State also has an early-alert system for struggling students, requiring them to meet with faculty and staff members to design a plan to get their academic careers back on track.

"It's never one thing that's accomplished that gets the retention effort won," Mr. Dunn said. "It's a matter of having a variety of initiatives. It's a matter of having a host of things that are going on in concert with one another."

Mr. Dunn said that faculty involvement with retention efforts was "part of the fabric of the institution" and is critical if universities want to improve their records on student completion.

"You can create the most elegant structures for retention alerts," he said, "and if faculty, particularly, don't know about it, won't buy into it, and don't use it, it has no merit."

While no two institutions are the same, Ms. Blanco expected the Southern board's conference held in Charleston, W.V., this week to allow colleges to share information about programs that improve retention. Even the colleges highlighted in the report are continuing to improve their efforts to increase retention, she said.

"They are not sitting back and saying, 'This is the hand we've been dealt, and that's the best we can do,'" Ms. Blanco said.