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3 Institutions Doing Innovative Work to Boost Degree Completion

closeup of graduation cap in a crowd of graduates

The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) has announced three finalists for its 2019 Degree Completion Award, an annual recognition program that identifies higher ed institutions that "employ innovative approaches to improve degree completion while ensuring educational quality." The finalists — the University of Central Florida, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and the University of Rhode Island — were selected by a panel of reviewers, with the final award winner to be announced at the APLU Annual Meeting in November.

1) University of Central Florida

The University of Central Florida is working to expand access and eliminate barriers to student success on a number of fronts, according to a news announcement:

  • Offering guaranteed admission for students from six regional state colleges;
  • Providing direct admission to Florida students earning grade point averages in the top 10 percent of their class; and
  • A six-week summer bridge program to help students successfully make the transition to college.

In addition, the university's programs to ensure academic success for enrolled students include:

  • PRIME STEM Career Academy, which works to prepare first-generation and low-income students for STEM careers;
  • A mentoring program that pairs African American students with staff and faculty to help them achieve personal, academic and career goals; and
  • A completion grants program that provides emergency funding for students at risk of failing to graduate for financial reasons.

UCF's degree completion progress is evident in its retention rates, APLU noted:

  • In 2018, freshman retention rates for African American and Hispanic students exceeded the university's overall retention rate for the first time;
  • The gap between African American students' six-graduation rates and that of white students are now just a third of what they were a decade ago;
  • The gap between Hispanic students' six-graduation rates and that of white students are now just a quarter of what they were a decade ago;
  • The six-year graduation rate for African American students trails that of white students by 3.7 percentage points, compared to the national gap of 23.5 percentage points; and
  • The six-year graduation rate for Hispanic students is just 1 percentage point less than the rate for white students, compared to the national gap of 12 percentage point points.

2) University of North Carolina at Charlotte

The University of North Carolina at Charlotte's 49er Graduation Initiative has worked to boost student success through three main avenues: 1) engaging students as active agents in their own success, 2) proactively advising at-risk students and 3) advancing polices to optimize students' path to graduation. Programs highlighted by APLU include:

  • A Prospect for Success curriculum for first-semester students, focused on building a commitment to success, developing critical thinking skills and enhancing cultural awareness;
  • The systematic use of technology to "identify emerging indicators of academic risk and then proactively connect students with advisers to help them get back on the path to timely graduation"; and
  • The creation of a graduation metrics platform to "help departments and colleges identify common curricular barriers to completion and address them on an ongoing basis," leading to "changes to prerequisite sequences that created unnecessary hurdles, changes to semester schedules to offer critical progression courses year-round, changes to course content and improvements in faculty advising."

Since 2009, the university has increased its six-year graduation rate by 10 percentage points and its four-year graduation rate by 17 percentage points.

3) The University of Rhode Island

In its 2010 academic strategic plan, the University of Rhode Island set out to improve student success through a variety of efforts:

  • A new financial aid model, which has helped increase the share of students with financial need receiving aid from 77 percent in 2010 to 92 percent in 2016;
  • Strategic investments in professional advisers and curriculum maps for all programs;
  • A new Office for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, which works with faculty to develop new pedagogies;
  • An increased focus on high-impact experiential learning;
  • An early-alert advising system; and
  • Creation of a winter J-term to help students who have fallen behind get back on track.

Successes noted by APLU include:

  • Overall six-year graduation rates have increased by 8.4 percentage points;
  • Overall four-year graduation rates have increased by 14.5 percentage points;
  • Among Pell-grant students, the six year graduation rate increased from 47 percent to 61 percent, reducing the equity gap from 15 percent to 7 percent; and
  • As an unanticipated institutional benefit, increased retention has brought in revenue that contributed to supporting 60 new faculty positions at the university.

"We're thrilled to spotlight this year's APLU Degree Completion Award finalists for their exceptional work advancing degree completion," said APLU President Peter McPherson, in a statement. "Public universities are the nation's great engines of upward mobility and the finalists are at the leading edge of further expanding college access, equity, and completion."

About the Author

Rhea Kelly is editor in chief for Campus Technology, THE Journal, and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected].

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