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Colleges’ new solution to enrollment declines: Reducing the number of dropouts

Colleges’ new solution to enrollment declines: Reducing the number of dropouts

Because he had no one to rely on after leaving foster care when he turned 18, Hasan Dickinson worked two jobs during his first semester at a big public university, rushing to catch the bus that took him to his second job as soon as class was out.

His grades suffered as a result of his extracurricular activities, and he was deprived of his financial assistance, barred from enrolling for any further courses, and put in danger of being ejected out of the dorm where he was the only person who could afford to reside.

Dickinson became entangled in the type of bureaucratic maze that so often stymies the dreams of students when seeking assistance. He was on the verge of giving up after being transferred from one office to another — that is until he was sent to someone with the title “retention expert.”

“I’d never heard of it before,” Dickinson said. “Basically, her duty is to keep you in school,” says the author.

Together, they were able to find grant and scholarship money to cover enough of his debt and other expenditures that he was able to leave one of his jobs, maintain his apartment, and enroll in the current semester, which is the second semester of his first year of college.

While it’s a small but notable example, it illustrates a new emphasis at colleges and universities on stemming the steady drip of dropouts who leave with little to show for their time and tuition, waste taxpayer money that subsidizes public universities, and leave employers with a scarcity of graduates to fill open positions.

According to James Capp, assistant provost for academic operations and planning at Florida Atlantic University, where Dickinson is a student and where fewer than one in every five students graduated within four years as recently as 2014. “We didn’t realize that we were selling them [students] short until we took a hard look at ourselves,” Capp said.

This has been more than quadrupled since then, reaching almost half in 2020, which is the most recent year for which data is available. A coordinated campus-wide program that incorporates interventions like the one that saved Dickinson has helped to achieve this success. The percentage of students who drop out between their first and second years has decreased from 25 percent to 18 percent in recent years.

Efforts like these reflect a significant shift from the days when students were expected to fend for themselves.

According to Capp, “it’s about a transformation in the culture.”

The decision is also driven by the practical need of keeping colleges afloat as overall enrollment continues to plunge – by over a million students since the outbreak began, and by roughly 3 million students in the previous decade. As demographic changes, a robust job market, and cynicism about the value of a degree reduce the number of new students entering the system, universities and colleges are working harder to ensure that current students do not slip through the gaps.

It was “simple to wait for the applications to come in” when a large number of 18-year-olds were flowing out of high schools, according to Florida Atlantic University President John Kelly, who spoke in his office overlooking a campus dotted with palm palms. “That isn’t the situation at this time.”


Another reason why it is in the best interests of public institutions to deal with dropouts now is that: The number of students who graduate is becoming more important in determining state budget allocations. According to officials, the state withheld $7 million from FAU as a result of the university’s low performance in that area, which placed it second to last among Florida’s 12 public institutions in the state’s performance financing mechanism.

“When a state puts money at risk for you,” said Bret Danilowicz, the president of Florida Atlantic University, “there is definitely a motive” to improve things.

Due to the fact that almost half of FAU’s more than 25,000 students are Black or Hispanic, and that around half come from low-income homes, the university “had this notion of ourselves as an institution of access,” according to Capp. “However, one of the things we discovered when we began looking into the data was that the information we were giving access to was debt.” Their only accomplishment was that they graduated from higher school with debt and nothing to show for it.”

Administrators also soon understood that meaningless restrictions were having an unintended negative impact on pupils, and that apparently little modifications might have a significant impact on student achievement. Rather than blaming the student for not staying or graduating on time, Danilowicz says the phrase “it is the institution’s responsibility, not the student’s” will be used instead.

In higher education in the United States, there are widespread issues with poor success rates. According to the most current government data, only approximately 40 percent of students graduate within four years at public institutions in general, and only 45 percent graduate within four years at all universities and colleges.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, more than a quarter of college students will drop out between their first and second years in 2020, marking the highest rate in over a decade. Students at community colleges drop out after their first year in roughly half of the cases.

“That doesn’t make sense, from a moral viewpoint, an economic perspective — from any perspective,” said Susan Mayer, chief learning officer at Achieving the Dream, which works with more than 300 community colleges to increase completion.

The Florida Atlantic University’s efforts to boost the percentage of its students who remain in college and graduate on time started with what seems to be the most basic change of all: persuading them that they could.

“The most important thing was for the university to establish clear expectations for students, such as the requirement that they graduate within four years,” Capp said. “Because it hadn’t been discussed before, there wasn’t a defined purpose.” As a result, every time the president speaks to students, he tells them that they will graduate in four years.

Even that was met with skepticism from several members of the faculty and staff. “There was some opposition to it,” Capp said. “People believed that students should be allowed to take as long as they wanted.” However, every semester in which students obtained fewer than 15 credits resulted in their falling more behind.

As a result, the institution, which was constructed on a former military airfield that is still in use as a general aviation airport next door, developed what it terms a “flight plan” for each new student, outlining his or her semester-by-semester path to a degree.

This was made more difficult by the fact that various academic departments used different advising software, and students’ data did not always accompany them from one advisor to another when they switched between departments. The institution standardized those procedures, and each student was allocated a personal “success network,” which consisted of an academic advisor, a career coach, and a financial aid counselor for the duration of his or her tenure at the university, including summers.

In addition, FAU explored for additional incentives to discourage students from dropping out of school. It established a link between financial assistance and academic advancement by introducing scholarships that rise in value the longer recipients remain in school. Recognizing that students who work on campus are more likely to persevere than those who work off-campus, almost quadrupled the number of on-campus student jobs.

In the same manner that many other higher education institutions do, Florida Atlantic University is increasingly relying on analytics to determine where students are losing their way and how to bring them back on track. Students who participated in academic success “conferences” such as “How to FAU” were more likely to graduate than those who did not. Students who participated in extracurricular activities were more likely to graduate than those who did not. Students who took advantage of physical and mental health care were less likely to drop out, according to the university’s findings. Students who participated in extracurricular activities were more likely to graduate.

Some initiatives appear minor, yet they may have a tremendous effect. Students who are referred from one office to another acquire a staff person’s name and email address.

“We took a series of nameless offices, and now there’s a person’s name there: ‘This is your financial aid officer,’” Danilowicz, the provost, said. “Now that they’re at a large university, they have people they can talk to.”

Regina Francis had no intention of attending Florida Atlantic University until she was pleased by the amount of personal attention she got from a financial aid worker who assisted her with her application form. Francis, now a junior studying political science and sociology with aspirations to attend law school, recalls how she used to call at least once a day.

Huguette St Hubert is a first-generation college student who aspires to work as a physician’s assistant. She is the first member of her family to attend college. She said that the applications process and the start of school were “overwhelming,” and that she had difficulty focusing. “However, we have urged. We have folks who can point us in the direction of financial assistance and the job center. We truly benefit from having that support structure in place from the beginning and knowing where to go. They make certain that you are well taken care of.”

Administrators discovered a plethora of red tape that was giving them much more difficult than they were worth. Ongoing “administrative holds” prevented students from progressing, for example, by prohibiting them from enrolling in courses when they fell behind on their university payments by even the most little of amounts. As Capp said, “a hold would be put, and then another hold.”

Students all around the country face difficulties like these, according to Yolanda Watson Spiva, president of the advocacy nonprofit Complete College America. According to Watson Spiva, “there are all of these long-established traditions.” Example: “If you lose your key, we will charge you fines plus interest, and you will not be able to get your transcript.” “A large number of institutions are coming to the conclusion that these policies are stupid.”

They’re starting to modify their ways.

It was “sadly” for a long time that the way of thought was that we had to cure pupils, but today “we’ve been much more focused on how do we alter our institutions,” Mayer said.

Dickinson, who aims to one day serve as an advocate for foster children like himself, continues to be perplexed as to why navigating college is so difficult.

“There are moments when it seemed hopeless. “I’m not going to lie,” he said emphatically. “It shouldn’t be necessary to go through all of these hoops simply to acquire an education.”

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