Teaching: A World View
Higher Ed graduation rates in Florida: Students as customers
The state’s universities have incentives to have students finish their degrees in four years.
Once upon a time, Florida’s public universities weren’t overly concerned if students took longer than four years to graduate with a bachelor’s degree — national rankings typically use only the six-year graduation rate in assessing schools’ effectiveness.
The schools also didn’t worry too much about dropouts — they maintained advisers to counsel students, but the counselors weren’t proactive; the students had to seek them out. As a result, many students didn’t do well academically in their freshman years — typically the toughest — and thousands didn’t return for their second years.
But for the past five years, under Marshall Criser III, chancellor of the State University System of Florida, public universities have focused on improving both their four-year graduation rates and their retention rates. The retention rate measures the percentage of fulltime students with at least a 2.0 GPA who return for their sophomore year. The Legislature has created incentives for the schools to keep students on track — the four-year graduation rates and retention rates are two of the 10 metrics that determine whether a school qualifies for performance-based funding, which can mean tens of millions of dollars for a university.
The shift is a big change for a state system where, until 2008, higher education was funded on a head-count basis. That created an incentive to recruit students and to grow, Criser says. “The unintended consequence of funding head count was that it generated a movement toward growth of enrollment and not a movement toward success and graduation.”
The performance-funding metrics have altered the old incentives. Schools are now focused less on admitting higher numbers of students and more on making sure that students finish their degrees — quickly. Specifics vary by institution, but most schools surround students with a “success team” of advisers, who offer guidance in academics, career coaching and financial aid. Apps and predictive analytics help students map their academic journeys and track progress. Students who fall behind are red-flagged, enabling the success team to reach out in real time — by phone, email, text, on social media or a knock on the dorm door.
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