January 29, 2023

Teaching: A World View

Higher Ed graduation rates in Florida: Students as customers

Nancy Dahlberg | 5/28/2019

Proactive? Intrusive? Maybe, but treating students more like customers works, the schools say.

“We provide a success team behind every one of our students,” says Sally McRorie, provost for Florida State University, which has the state’s highest four-year graduation rate.

Universities are also bolstering their summer bridge programs, which help incoming at-risk students acclimate to campus life, and have programs to help at-risk students throughout their college years. The institutions also give micro- grants, typically $500 to $1,000, to students who encounter financial emergencies — say a root canal or expensive car repair — that could derail their financial ability to pay for classes.

The campuses also now offer in-demand classes more often so students don’t have to delay graduations. At the University of Florida, departments have to make a course available immediately if a student needs it to progress, says Provost Joseph Glover. Universities also promote summer courses. Bright Futures scholarships and Pell grants cover summer tuition, recent changes that are boosting enrollments.

Messaging campaigns — “Don’t Stop, Don’t Drop,” “Finish in Four,” “Think 15. Take 30,” “U Matter. We Care” — signal a culture change for universities and their students (and parents). “What many students are pursuing, a 120-hour degree, is designed to be completed in four,” Criser says. Without that focus, “what you saw was creep toward a sense of a lowered expectations,” he says.

For students who started in 2013 and graduated in 2017, there were still four of the 11 universities where only about one in four students graduated in four years. “That is not a chamber of commerce speech,” Criser pointed out. But in the just released 2018 data, they all improved, and the rate at two of those schools was about one in three.

Overall, the system has made a lot of progress in the past six years. Retention rates increased from 83.3% to 86.2%, and four-year graduation rates rose from 44.3% to 52.6%, nearing or exceeding the 2025 goals of 90% and 50% respectively.

University Snapshots

University of Florida

Incoming freshman: 7,228 fall 2018
Second-year retention rate: 95.2% 2017-18
Four-year graduation rate: 67.1% 2014-18

The University of Florida pioneered some of the most successful programs more than 20 years ago now used across the university system to help students earn their 120-credit hour degree in four years.

As a result of its academic mapping — which involves creating a plan of study and courses to help a student stay on track to meet all degree requirements for graduation — it’s now a policy that if a student needs a course to make progress to graduation, he or she gets a seat in that class. If there is no seat available, it is up to the dean or department chair to add more capacity or create a new section. “That is part of the culture at UF,” says Joseph Glover, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs.

UF also has been examining degree curriculums that require more than 120 credits to graduate. Are all those credits really needed for a degree? Some of its engineering programs have shaved their programs closer to the 120-credit mark.

How the programs are taught may also be a problem worth solving: “Freshman mathematics is often a barrier to student success. We have invested money into the mathematics department, and it has revamped the methods it has used to teach its freshman calculus classes,” says Glover.

University of Central Florida

Incoming freshman: 4,033 fall 2018
Second-year retention rate: 88.7% 2017-18
Four-year graduation rate: 45.7% 2014-18

“We make individual calls to students who haven’t yet registered for the fall. We learn, one by one, what the issues are that are interfering with their decision to move forward. Certainly finances are a big issue. Life happens, and they get stuck. We might help them explore private scholarships or mini-success grants to get over the hump,” says Maribeth Ehasz, vice president for student development and enrollment services.

UCF has even involved college deans in its calling campaign. “Last year, we saw that our retention rate really increased because of these calls,” Ehasz says.

After this campaign last year, retention increased greatly from where it stood near the end of the spring term, the university says. UCF spent about $57,000 in completion grants (the average grant was $640) to help students.

The school’s four-year graduation rate has also improved, “but it is a bigger reach for us. Our students have not been considering four years as the best option. They work and take 12 (credits) instead of 15 — 60% to 70% of our students work,” says Ehasz.

For them, there is a “Think 30” messaging campaign, a more robust summer class program and a planning tool, Pegasus Path, giving students a clear view of their degree progression.

Tags: Education, Feature, Teaching: A World View

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