Student Success - Part One

July 16, 2014 
Dear Colleagues:

We hear a lot today about undergraduate student success. In some ways this seems odd to me, because when haven't universities been interested in student success? After all, teaching students is what we do. Preparing undergraduates for success in the workforce and/or graduate school is our mission. Haven't all universities, and hasn't Kent State in particular, always been dedicated to student success?

I think we hear more and more today about undergraduate student success, tracked most often by freshman to sophomore retention rates, and by six year graduation rates, because the cost of failure in college is so much higher now than it was when many of us were in college. Back then it wasn't unheard of to graduate debt free. Today, students who graduate from Kent State with debt do so owing an average of $31,500. Yet, I worry less about these students because they are the successful ones, and because multiple studies demonstrate that this is worthwhile investment in their future. Instead, I worry about students who study at a university for one, two, or more years but leave the institution with a similar debt but no diploma. The plight of these students, I suspect, is what is really driving the emphasis on student success, and rightly so.

The Education Trust leads the way nationally in examining what universities are doing to boost graduation rates. Recently their researchers have begun comparing universities with similar student body profiles (high school GPA, ACT/SAT scores, percentage of students with Pell Grants, AALANA enrollment) that nevertheless have dramatically different graduation rates. For example: why is Penn State's graduation rate so much higher than the University of Minnesota's (85.6% vs. 72.9%), or why is Florida State's graduation rate 75.1% while the University of Arizona's is 61.3%? Why, despite very similar student bodies, does Syracuse University graduate a much greater percentage of students than Hofstra University (81.7% vs. 60.8%)? Our Kent campus six-year graduation rate is currently 51.2%.

Michael Dannenberg of The Education Trust recently spoke to a gathering of provosts I attended. In his talk he presented three characteristics of universities with dramatically higher graduation rates than schools with similarly placed student bodies. First, the leaders of these institutions have made student success a campus priority. Second, these schools pay particular attention to university data, and mine it for information on what is working and not working.

Finally, universities such as Penn State and Florida State typically implement the following five initiatives. First, most of these institutions have some sort of mandatory attendance policy, which includes tracking attendance and/or assessing penalties for missing class. Second, these universities issue mid-term grades, and follow up with students who are struggling. Third, these universities pay particular attention to large enrollment introductory courses with high rates of D and F grades, and course withdrawals (DFW rates), and they pay particular attention to sections of the same survey courses that have noticeably different DFW rates (they do so because just one or two courses, or even just one or two professors can account for much of a freshmen class's attrition). Fourth, these universities focus not just on retention, but even more on progress towards degree. It is especially important that freshmen pass 30 credits in their first year, and that they stay on track for graduation. A freshman who returns for the sophomore year with 24 credits passed and is off track for meeting requirements is less likely to graduate. Finally, these universities collect a decade or more of student data to identify what successful students are doing to graduate, and what students who struggled in the past did to turn things around. They then use these results for more intrusive and intentional academic advising.

Next week I will follow this Provost's Update with a discussion of what we are doing at Kent State to boost student success. Until then, here are two links for further reading and review. The first is a recent Education Trust study of what successful universities are doing to boost graduation rates. The second link is to a website The Education Trust maintains to facilitate university comparisons.


Todd A. Diacon, Ph.D.
Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost

POSTED: Wednesday, July 16, 2014 12:00 AM
Updated: Thursday, December 8, 2022 12:00 PM
Todd A. Diacon