Four Tips for Helping Students Graduate
on Time

NPR's Talk of the Nation this week interviewed a series of academic leaders and experts in academic advising to examine why many students find barriers to graduation within four years. At Academic Impressions, we decided to follow up with some practical advice for where institutions can see significant gains in helping students graduate earlier.

Of the following four tips, the first two are focused on empowering students to plan their progress toward the degree intentionally; the second two are focused on identifying and removing those barriers or outdated academic policies that typically slow progress toward the degree.

Empower students to build and manage their momentum, and clear their path.

In gathering these tips, we spoke with Lucie Lapovsky, president of Lapovsky Consulting and past president of Mercy College; Dennis Pruitt, vice president for student affairs at the University of South Carolina; and Susan Ohrablo, a doctoral enrollment counselor with the Abraham S. Fischler School of Education at Nova Southeastern University, who previously served as the director of academic advising for the business school at NSU.

Here is their advice.

Tip One: Empower Students to Self-Audit Their Progress

Lapovsky warns that inadequate advising or misadvising can easily occur. Getting false information to students is a risk both because academic advisers often have a high load and because catalogs and requirements are updated frequently. This can make it difficult for either students or advisers to keep track.

Lapovsky suggests letting students do their own degree audits regularly. "Make the degree audit available online." An online audit can keep both students and advisers up to date. Many registrars already use effective online programs, often for a degree audit in the spring of the junior year. Lapovsky recommends having these programs shared out with academic departments and with students. Give the program an easy Web-based end user interface. The ability to produce a degree audit quickly will empower students to make smarter choices -- and to take ownership of their course plan.

Tip Two: Make Sure Academic Advising is Developmental in Focus

As you offer students the ability to self-audit their degree progress, shift the focus of the academic advising your institution provides away from going over requirements and course schedules and more toward active, guided problem-solving. Empower students to take more ownership over their own advisement by structuring advising to aid them in developing individualized learning paths. An adviser can assist a student not only in thinking through the courses needed to achieve degree and career goals, but also in making intentional choices about the co-curricular and extracurricular activities that will support their goal.

"We're not simply here to give information or restate policies and procedures. Advising goes well beyond that. Keep the focus on decision-making, goal-setting, and helping students anticipate and overcome obstacles to their goals."
Susan Ohrablo, Nova Southeastern University

Training for effective advising entails more than just a cursory orientation to the academic schedule, credit transfer, and other policies. Yet many institutions simply prepare their advisers to give students quick, one-time answers, rather than the more meaningful assistance and decision making skills that they need in order not only solve the issue of the day but succeed and thrive throughout their college career. And, as evident from the Academic Impressions survey, few institutions conduct any assessment of academic advising with the intent of improving advising practices or policies.

Our recent article "Ensuring Your Developmental Advising is Effective" offers specific suggestions for coaching and training advisors.

Tip Three: Audit Your Academic Policies

Dennis Pruitt emphasizes the importance of auditing your academic processes and procedures for unnecessary "road bumps" that delay a student's progress toward a degree. Here are a few places to look for trouble spots:

  • Major/minor declaration -- how complex is the process?
  • The financial aid process -- survey your students to learn where there are bumps in the road
  • Grade recalculation -- how does your institution calculate GPA in cases where a student retakes a course?

"A student can have a bad course or a bad semester," Pruitt notes. "When they retake courses, what happens on their transcript?" For instance, Pruitt warns that the common practice of averaging the two grades "almost penalizes" the student for retaking the course. A better option is to keep the first grade on the transcript (so that it remains a part of the academic record) but use only the second grade in calculating the student's cumulative GPA. This incentivizes students to improve their academic performance and rewards them for it.

Tip Four: Ensure Students Are Able to Get Required Courses

Finally, as schools become more crowded -- particularly public institutions with rising enrollments -- students may get closed out of full courses. Inability to secure prerequisites can cause a delay in graduation of a term or in some cases a full year. This risk is exacerbated at institutions that are tight on resources and therefore hesitant to open new sections of a course unless absolutely needed.

"Does your institution give priority to students taking a course as a prerequisite, over students who are taking a course as an elective?"
Lucie Lapovsky, Lapovsky Consulting

"There aren't great solutions to this problem," Lapovsky warns. "You'll have to be creative." The best initial step is to map out your curriculum and establish a system that ensures that students who need a course for a prerequisite in their major have first priority at registration. Once you have done that, look for alternative means of getting students into courses that they need in order to fulfill requirements. For example, if a course is full, find opportunities for a student to take an online course or a comparable course at a nearby institution -- and ensure that the credit will transfer quickly.

In summary, support your students in building momentum toward graduation by empowering them with the tools and information they need to chart a clear and efficient path toward their degree, and by proactively identifying and addressing procedual and logistical barriers to their progress.