BOX 6-1

A Seven-Step Plan to Lower College Dropout Rates

No matter their orientation or mission—national research university, regional research university, master’s degree institution, or historically black college or university, public or private—different colleges and universities produced substantially different graduation rates, even while enrolling similar students. The Education Trust examined the phenomenon and identified a seven-step process that lowers college dropout rates.

  1. Look at your data and act. More higher education decisions should be driven by data. When it is apparent that institutions similar to yours and enrolling similar students are producing different results, it may be time to discard the easy explanations and look for underlying causes on campus. Take student complaints seriously; examine course availability; finish “critical path” analyses that identify “choke points” in curricula and offerings; provide students with online degree audit tools that let them plan degree completion; and make course transfer from elsewhere easier, not harder.

  2. Pay attention to details—especially leading indicators. Use technology to track student success. Make course attendance mandatory, track absences, meet with students in trouble, and track data.

  3. Take on introductory courses. It’s just common sense: If you can get students successfully through year one, their chances of degree completion are much higher. Examine first-year courses. If large numbers or proportions of apparently prepared students are failing, preparation might be the problem, but not necessarily—it could just as easily be a “choke point” of a required course for which not enough sections are provided.

  4. Don’t hesitate to make demands. Mandatory course attendance is a good idea, as is mandatory lab attendance. At one institution, the faculty, reluctant to require lab participation, found success rates dropped every time the mandatory requirement was waived.

  5. Assign clear responsibility for student success. When everyone is responsible, no one is accountable. At one highly successful institution, a central office works with students in challenged high schools and provides summer transition programs and ongoing support and mentoring once enrolled. That office reports to the vice president for student affairs and the vice president for undergraduate education. These students persist to the second year at higher rates than apparently more highly qualified freshmen.

  6. Insist that presidents step up to the plate. Institutional leaders have to make sure student success is a priority. Presidents can use the bully pulpit to articulate a vision, insist on data, act strategically and continually “walk the talk.” Without presidential leadership (and follow-through on faculty recommendations), efforts to attack dropout rates falter.

  7. Bring back the “ones you lose.” More common sense—a lot of students who leave without a degree are close to the finish line. The easiest dropout to graduate is the one who is shy of 10 credits or less. One university identified a universe of 3,000 dropouts with at least 98 credits and a GPA of 2.00 or higher.

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