FIU effort to boost graduation rates delivering results

FIU’s Graduation Success Initiative gaining national attention as it boosts on-time graduation rates

By Deborah O’Neil MA ‘09

Social work major Shanice Lum You struggled during her first semester at FIU. Far from her Connecticut home, she felt alone in this big city and her classes were tough.

When she got an F in Intro to Statistics, it was the first time she’d ever failed a class.

In higher ed, there’s nothing unusual about Lum You’s new-student experience. But experts will tell you that how a university responds to students in this vulnerable moment can make all the difference to their academic success. The right intervention can turn a potential dropout into a guaranteed graduate.

What happened next is a case study for how big universities can give students the individual support they need, and, in the process, boost the nation’s four-year graduation rate of 41 percent and six-year graduation rate of 59 percent.

Lum You’s grade triggered a series of new high-tech and high-touch safeguards that FIU collectively calls the Graduation Success Initiative (GSI). Led by Undergraduate Education Dean Douglas Robertson, FIU has invested significantly in research, technology and new personnel to make systemic changes in how 38,000 undergraduates get from the first day of school to the commencement stage. In the process, FIU’s six-year graduation rate climbed 9 percentage points in just two years, virtually unimaginable for a university this large.  And it promises to increase another 3 points this year.

“From 41 percent to 50 percent in two years,” said Robertson. “That’s real. We are transforming the way we administer the undergraduate curriculum.”

Universities around the country are taking notice. Last fall, FIU was one of only two public universities in the country recognized with a high profile national award from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities for making visible progress toward improving graduation rates. National higher education leader Lawrence Abele served on the APLU committee that reviewed applications for the award, Most Visible Progress: Opportunity Award.

“I’m a suspicious guy,” he said. “I went into FIU’s website and drilled down as far as I could. When I did that at some schools the results weren’t so positive. At FIU, you really built a solid system for all students. I thought FIU’s program was fantastic.”

While most undergrads have never heard of the Graduation Success Initiative, they will tell you, straight up: FIU has got my back. Lum You’s falling GPA sent up a red flag in the new electronic system that maps out each student’s four-year plan for graduation.

Her FIU inbox lit up with messages: You are no longer on track to graduate. Social work majors must earn a C or better in statistics. Contact your advisor immediately.

Meanwhile, in the School of Social Work, her advisor Shimon Cohen also got an alert as part of the electronic tools he uses to monitor the progress of the 350 students he advises. All of Cohen’s students are social work majors and he’s an expert on the program’s requirements. He’s also a social worker himself – and one of the 69 new advisors brought on through GSI and assigned to each major — so he’s able to offer students a first-hand understanding of the field.

He immediately reached out to Lum You.

She told him: I really want to be a social worker. I don’t want to switch majors.

Cohen could see that she had grades of B or higher in her social work courses. She just needed extra help to get through statistics. So they went to work on an academic plan to retake Intro to Statistics the following semester. He sent her to the tutoring center. She put in the extra study hours.

Cohen checked in with her all semester long. “He’d call and say, if you need help come on over,” You said.

The plan worked. Second time around, Lum You got an A. In December, when her GPA climbed high enough to qualify Lum You for an internship, Cohen noticed.

“He sent me an email saying, ‘You did it!’” Lum You recalls. “I showed my mom, ‘Look he’s so proud of me!’”

Read: The five pillars of GSI

A few years ago, FIU might have lost someone like Lum You. With too few advisors and a weak academic support system, there was no easy way for the country’s seventh largest university with more than 50,000 total students to detect a problem with any single individual. In the same way, there was no mechanism to reconcile course requirements with course availability. That meant high demand classes were filling up and students couldn’t get the classes they needed to graduate.

Another problem was the undergraduate trajectory. In the old system, there was a period when students would fall off the map. Robertson called it, “The Bermuda Triangle,” the sophomore year during which students could not yet declare a major. Many found themselves drifting with no academic home or clear educational path. Advising for freshmen and sophomores was centrally housed, and the student-advisor ratio hovered around 800:1.

Students, effectively, were getting lost in the system — held back by a failing grade, by uncertainty about what to study, by the unavailability of required classes. All too often, the students were dropping out.

That, in large measure, explained FIU’s lower than national average  on-time graduation rate.  The country’s other behemoth public universities face the same challenges. Arizona State and the University of Central Florida were both cited last year by U.S. News & World Report for low four-year graduation rates.

Four years ago, FIU administrators began to carefully examine graduation rates and systematically fix the problem. They didn’t quite know it at the time, but FIU was on the vanguard of a profound transformation in higher education.

Read: Student testimonials on GSI

National education leader Lawrence Abele has been talking about college graduation rates for as long as he can remember. For many years, he was howling in the wind.

“It seemed criminal,” said Abele, who became one of the most respected provosts in the country during his 16 years at Florida State University. “How can higher education lose almost 50 percent of its students and still stay in business?”

The economic and educational issues that arise from high college dropout rates seemed obvious to Abele. Plenty of data shows that adults with college degrees earn more money and experience more job satisfaction than those without. When students quit college, however, they are left with the economic burden but not the economic advantage.

About half of FIU students who drop out leave with debt, according to Douglas Wartzok, who served as FIU’s provost during the implementation of GSI. “The real concern is the debt of students who don’t graduate. We need to minimize that number.”

The federal government disperses some $112 billion annually in student loans. The national three-year default rate hovers around 15 percent and has been rising. When students cannot pay back their student loans, taxpayers bear the cost.

And that’s not all, Wartzok points out: “Student debt cannot be erased through bankruptcy, so the long-term consequences of default are much greater on the borrower than in other circumstances.”

Beyond the economics, Abele saw a more fundamental failure. Educational leaders were pointing fingers in all the wrong places. One common explanation for sagging graduation rates was that the students were not college ready to begin with. One study showed that assumption was wrong, Abele said. Some 65 percent of the students leaving college early were in good academic standing and a third were A students.

At FIU, leaders assumed students were dropping out for financial reasons. Not so. When surveyed, 62 percent of 8,700 FIU seniors poised to graduate said the No. 1 reason they were struggling to finish their degree was that the classes they needed were full. Only half that number said money was the issue.

Grad Success imageData like that affirms what Abele has been saying for years.  Universities need to stop blaming students for low graduation rates and take responsibility for fixing the problem. That’s how Robertson sees it also.

“If you place student success as a top priority and look at it from a student point of view, figuring out what to do isn’t so hard,” Robertson said. “If you get rid of the barriers and provide the support, good things happen for the students.”

The message has finally penetrated the halls of academia. In 2008, a  national survey asked university administrators for their Top 10 educational concerns. Graduation rates didn’t make the list. By 2011, graduation rates made it to No. 5.

In the end, it was the private sector, and not higher education, that  shifted the agenda. The Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation, the Helmsley Trust and industry leaders like retired Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine began talking about the failure of American universities to keep up with global competitors, particularly in science, technology, engineering and math. The broader issue of workforce competitiveness opened the door to more targeted conversations about where universities need to improve.

College graduation rates became a national conversation in 2010 when President Obama pledged to raise the nation’s college graduation rate to 60 percent in 10 years.

“In a single generation, we’ve fallen from first place to 12th place in college graduation rates for young adults,” Obama said at the time.

Universities have rallied behind the president’s challenge. More than 500, including FIU, committed to Obama’s goal by signing onto Project Degree Completion, led by the Association of Public Land-grant Universities and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. The pledge calls on universities to award an additional 3.8 million bachelor’s degrees by 2025.

“This initiative is an economic competitiveness imperative for the future of the country and the individuals involved,” said M. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

For FIU, the issue has now become a funding imperative. Starting this year, the Florida Legislature is tying state education dollars to university performance. One of the key measures in the performance matrix is graduation rate. This year, FIU fared well in the performance funding formula, tying for third with UCF among the state’s universities. With that comes an expected $7.2 million in new state dollars.

Transforming undergrad ed

FIU tackled the graduation rate problem looking for immediate and sustained results. Structural change was needed, but Robertson also wanted to make an impact now.  So as FIU began phasing in long-term programs, Undergraduate Education pulled up the files of every student in the 2008-2014 cohort close to finishing their degree. Then advisors started making phone calls.

“At the very granular level we reached out to these students to see what they needed to graduate and to try to make sure that happens,” said Robertson.

Student response was overwhelming. “We heard a lot of, ‘I need classes. Please help me,’ “ said Consuelo Boronat, the lead researcher in the Office of Retention and Student Success. “These poor kids. It’s an institutional problem. We are not providing enough of the classes they need. It is our fault. We have the power to do something about it.”

The university moved quickly to add course sections and find money for students in need of financial help. The triage delivered the results Robertson wanted. FIU’s graduation rate jumped 9 percentage points, a startling result with an undeniable message: Yes, it is possible to move the needle on graduation rates.

Meanwhile, new programs were coming on board. Robertson established the Office of Retention and Graduation Success with Ph.D.-level behavioral scientists. Their task is to figure out where and why FIU was losing students, and then recommend solutions.

The research has zeroed in on a handful of bottleneck core courses like College Algebra with high enrollment and high failure rates. They went a step further and looked at what percentage of students who fail one of those classes ended up dropping out: about 20 percent.

Something had to be done. So, in the case of college algebra, the university opened the new Mastery Math Lab in 2012. In 2013, FIU saw the pass rate climb 20 percent.

Research also found that students who had accumulated 75 hours of credits without declaring a major were the most likely to never finish their degree.

“It became clear we should get them into majors as quickly as possible,” said Wartzok, who will step down as provost June 30.

So FIU redrew the undergraduate roadmap. Starting with the Fall 2012 entering class, every student is required to declare a major. The Bermuda Triangle has disappeared. Undecided majors are no more at FIU.

With that shift came the addition of 69 new advisors around the university, each assigned to a specific major. In many ways, it is the advisors who are on the front lines confronting the problem of graduation rates, student-by-student.

Research is also applied in ways that help students make smarter decisions about their education. One study showed that journalism majors who earn less than a B grade in English Composition have a less than 18 percent chance of graduating.

With this data, an advisor is equipped to have a conversation with a student about whether the major is the right fit. The idea is to match student interests, skills and passion with the right program, said Charlie Andrews, the director of the undergraduate advising center.

“Failing one class isn’t the end of college,” he said. “It creates an opportunity for students and advisors to know something is going on. The conversation needs to be, is this really what you want to do?”

Andrews promotes the idea: “We are going to help you find a new dream.”

And that is part of the paradigm shift at FIU. Everyone works together to help each student succeed, whether they are majoring in biology or journalism.

“We are graduating from FIU,” Andrews said. “If where you are at isn’t right, let’s find the place that is.”

Creating high-tech solutions

As part of GSI, personal attention to students is supplemented with technology: MyMajorMatch, MyMajor, My_eAdvisor, Panther Degree Audit. All are online systems that provide students with information and guide them throughout their undergraduate education.

In 2012, Karen Cifuentes was in the U.S. Army stationed in New York when she was accepted to FIU as a transfer student. From New York, she mapped out her bachelor’s degree using FIU’s online system. It told her which of her community college credits would be accepted so she didn’t repeat courses. She mapped out every class she would take from day one to graduation.

“Everything is there for you,” she said. “You know exactly how to graduate in four years. And if you want to do it even quicker, it tells you how.”

Shimon Cohen was the advisor to both Cifuentes and to Shanice Lum You. The GSI digital tools provide him with countless ways to keep up with his students. For instance, he can generate student reports based on GPA.

Those who are falling below 2.0 hear from him. He asks questions like: “What are you going to do differently to improve your grades?” If they say, “Study more,” Cohen asks, “How do you study more? Maybe how you study is the issue.”

And then he makes it real. “They have to sign a contract that is an action plan to get back in good academic standing,” he said.

The My_eAdvisor tools also allowed Cohen to detect an issue that was creating hardship for social work majors. The prerequisites that students struggled with the most – statistics, economics and American government – were all crammed into the same semester.

“So the first thing we did was redo the map so those three classes are in different semesters,” Cohen said.

Cohen still communicates regularly with Lum You. She’s on track to graduate in December 2014. Meanwhile, she’s hoping to land an internship in child welfare or foster care.

“The fact that I’m applying for an internship says I’m almost done,” she said. “I’m excited to get out there and make a difference in people’s lives.”