- A new report from education research group, Third Way, provides an extensive review of completion initiatives across a spectrum of what researchers call "success factories" and "failure factories" institutions. Using IPEDs data, the report shows that almost 600 of the nation’s approximately 3,000 four-year campuses report that less than one-third of their freshmen earned a four-year bachelor’s degree in six years.
- The report says that in order to increase completion rates overall, institutions with better track records of producing successful graduates — typically wealthier institutions with generous financial aid packages — ought enroll historically disadvantaged students, while others need to catch up. At the same time, institutions across the board can work to provide comprehensive support to all students, especially those with significant financial burdens.
- With data from Civitas Learning showing that nearly one in five students who drop out completed 75% or more of their credit threshold, institutions can have emergency completion grants available to juniors and seniors needing financial help crossing the finish line. The Civitas report also suggests using new data-gathering and analysis tools to provide better guidance for struggling students as well as evidence-based teaching methods to improve instruction, helping students gain lucrative skills to improve return on investment.
With data showing many four-year institutions failing to serve the nation's most disadvantaged students, higher ed leaders are recognizing the need to develop industry-wide practices that can be adapted and tailored to particular bodies of students. One of the themes the Third Way report authors draw out, for instance, is the fact there's really no "plug and play" solution to completion for all kinds of students, and often times a strategy that works at one institution may fail at another because it has different student demographics.
Overall, a holistic approach based on what is applicable to the institution's mission and students, focused on investing in access and lowering costs, will be most advantageous to raising completion rates, the authors wrote. For example, since 2011, Georgia State University — often lauded for taking unique approaches to help students stay on track — has granted more than 10,000 automatic completion grants to juniors and seniors who weren't able to pay for the next semester. The institution, which enrolls many low-income learners, automatically flags accounts of students who look like they are on the path to completion but are struggling financially.
When it comes to systemic change in improving completion, Third Way researcher Tamara Hiler explained, while discussing a new study around Pell Grant student success, that finding the data is just one part of the puzzle; the other critical step is that institutions talk to each other, with similar ones sharing best practices.
"We can see there are very clear outliers and institutions that are able to buck the trend," she said. "We need to look at those institutions and see how can we help to support and scale those efforts."