Timely college completion can be improved with focus, speakers at higher education conference say

The longer it takes to finish college, the less likely it is a student will graduate. So universities that make a concerted effort to keep students on track to graduate in two or four years will deliver better results, according to officials with national nonprofit Complete College America who delivered the keynote address at a higher education conference hosted by the Board of Regents at Pennington Biomedical Research Center today.

Complete College Vice President Dhanfu Elston walked attendees through several strategies that have led to “double-digit gains” in the percentage of students graduating in two years (for an associate’s degree) and in four years (for a bachelor’s degree). The strategies are particularly useful for minority and first-generation college students, he says.
Among them:

  • Allowing students to complete remedial work at the same time as regular college-level courses, by giving them extra time after class, an extra class period or mandatory lab time with mentors or tutors.
  • Stressing the fact that at least 15 hours per semester usually is needed to finish college in four years.
  • Create “meta majors” such as social sciences, health sciences or STEM as a default option for undeclared students, keeping them on track for graduation. Students can opt out of their “default pathway” with approval from an adviser.
  • Advisers should be “intrusive” and aware of the warning signs that a student is in danger of dropping out.
  • Use structured, five-day a week schedules in morning or afternoon blocks, which is easier for students to manage. Scheduling this way also leads to formation of “student cohorts” who support each other so they don’t feel alone.

“There is no silver bullet,” Elston says. “It’s more like a silver buckshot.”

He says many of the suggestions can be implemented with little to no cost. University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley says it’s important to remember that for many nontraditional students, a full-time course load is not a realistic option. Elston and Complete College President Stan Jones agree that finishing in four years may not be doable for everyone, but say it’s important to set the bar there.

“We can’t run universities based on exceptions,” Jones says.

—David Jacobs

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