It’s Not Just About the First and Second Year of College

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Series: Managing the Student Lifecycle
This new series convenes expert perspectives on student success and predictive analytics. We hope to empower enrollment managers, student affairs professionals, deans, and faculty to think deeper about their student data, predictors of success, and managing the student lifecycle holistically from recruitment to retention to completion.
Earlier in this series:
Improving Student Success Can’t Be a One-Office Effort
Developing a Metrics-Driven Culture within Student Affairs

It’s not just about the first and second year of college. Here are 5 places where students and campuses falter later in the student lifecycle.

Traditionally, colleges measure retention as the percentage of enrolling first-year students who return for their sophomore year. No doubt this is an important measure. But equally important are the retention rates from sophomore to junior year, from junior year to senior year, and from the start of senior year to graduation. Colleges committed to promoting student success need to take a closer look at their year-to-year retention and graduation rate trends in order to determine patterns, identify pitfalls, and take steps to make improvements. Only when the obstacles are identified and understood can an institution take intentional and strategic steps to achieve higher student success levels.

In this article, I will share 5 common obstacles encountered in the third and fourth academic year, and I will offer examples of institutions that are asking sharp questions of their student data to arrive at better practices in meeting these obstacles. At the end of the article, I’ll provide a quick checklist of questions you need to be asking at your own institution.

1. Double majors, multiple major changes, and satisfactory academic progress

Studies show that as many as 80% of students switch their major while in college and that as many as 40% graduate with a double major. Certainly, educators want students to explore their interests and choose to follow an academic path that sparks their passions. But increasingly, studies of student success suggest that multiple major changes can slow down or derail a student’s progress toward graduation. Choosing to complete a double major can prolong time in college by a semester or more. Those studies show that when students get off track by even a semester they are exponentially less likely to graduate on time or at all. As with major declaration patterns, it is critical for student affairs and academic advising staff to understand what multiple major changes and double majoring predict for student success on their campus.

Falling behind due to changing a major can be especially perilous for financial aid recipients, who may end up exhausting their eight semesters of eligibility to receive state and federal financial aid before they have earned enough credits to qualify for graduation. Choosing to double major can also be problematic for a financial aid student, if that choice results in an extra semester or more to complete the dual major requirements.

What can you do?

  • Make sure that you monitor and promote satisfactory academic progress student by student. Provide proactive and positive counseling about satisfactory academic progress to head off potential problems, rather than framing the issue in punitive-seeming admonitions. For a model in proactive outreach, look to The New School in New York, which reports that its intrusive and progressive approach to advising has made a demonstrable difference.
  • To keep financial aid recipients from dropping out short of graduation, consider establishing an emergency scholarship pool–as Oregon State University, the New School, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have done. This provides a lifeline for students whose academic paths have resulted in a need for an extra semester or two.
  • Take a look at whether your financial aid students are encountering challenges in completing a double major. The SUNY System is exploring ways to break down barriers by making state scholarship policies more flexible.
  • Contact stopped-out students to determine what needs to be done to help them reenroll. SUNY-Brockport, for example, has had early success in its efforts to reach out to withdrawn students to help put them back on a path toward graduation.

2. Undecided and off-track students

Staying undecided for too long or falling behind on major course requirements are two strong signals that a student is at risk for attrition. To better understand these factors, here are the key questions to ask:

  • Do students on your campus have higher attrition rates before or after they declare their major?
    Higher pre-major attrition rates may suggest a number of concerns, such as un-remediated academic deficits that lead to failure; weak orientation, remediation, and/or first-year and sophomore experience programs; or something systemic in your campus community that dissuades significant numbers of students from staying beyond the first and second year.
  • Do a significant number of your students fail to graduate not because they lack the requisite number of overall credits but simply because they lack some of the required courses in their major?
    Higher attrition rates for students whose earned credits put them at or near 10% away from the point of graduation might suggest that some of your major requirements are dissuading students from completing.

How Florida State University is keeping this from being an obstacle to student success
Florida State University has raised the graduation rates of undecided students by setting up structured and intentional pre-major advising programs to help students explore major options and plot out their academic map to graduation earlier. Florida State’s Center for Exploratory Studies places trained advisers in academic departments and in specialized advising centers in high-traffic locations around campus.
An additional option
If insufficient credits in the declared major tends to prevent a large number of your students from graduating on time or at all, you may want to consider establishing a general studies degree option, such as the program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

3. Advising and cross-registration policies

When campuses evaluate the effectiveness of their advising programs, they often discover unpleasant surprises, such as student confusion and pockets of poor advising quality. Campuses often make similar discoveries about less-than-user-friendly policies when they take a close look at how they treat cross-registration. Proactively structuring advising to address common pitfalls and making cross-registration policies more flexible–especially in cases where significant numbers of students are encountering advising and scheduling impediments that are throwing them off course to graduate–can invigorate your undergraduate program and make a positive difference for students.

How the UW-Eau Claire is tackling advising issues
Consider following the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire’s integrated and collaborative approach to advising. Through its Advising, Retention, and Career Center, UW-Eau Claire pairs students with an academic adviser, a faculty adviser, and a career counselor. The goal at UW-Eau Claire is to make students more aware of student services and opportunities that are highly correlated with retention, such as study abroad, undergraduate research, and internships.

UW-Eau Claire also follows a program cluster approach that groups together advisers from the academic majors that predictive analytics show are most commonly explored in tandem or in combination by students.

How SUNY is tackling cross-registration policies
Clarifying and/or simplifying your cross-registration policies is critical. At the State University of New York (SUNY), a recently streamlined system-wide cross-registration agreement makes it possible for a student at SUNY-Fredonia, for example, who needs a course that is not available on her campus that semester, to take that course for no extra charge at another campus, such as the University at Buffalo. The student knows that the credit will count at Fredonia.

4. Lack of clear academic pathways

Studies show that when students do not have a clear sense of where they are heading academically, they are less likely to persist through to graduation. Creating pathways that are appealing, easy to understand, and simple to navigate can keep students engaged in the work of mapping out a plan from freshman year to graduation.

Option A: Explicit and engaging academic pathways
Connecticut College’s new approach to organizing its curriculum provides students integrative academic pathways designed to foster higher levels of engagement. Importantly, Connecticut College has implemented a team advising structure to support these integrative pathways. It’s worth taking a close look and determining whether this approach, implemented at a 1,900-student, undergraduate-focused, liberal arts institution, might work for your campus as well.
Option B: The meta-major
The California State University System and Georgia State University are experimenting with meta-majors — that is, clusters of courses with similar content that are offered in different departments and schools. The campuses exploring or instituting meta-majors see it as a way to bring students in contact with study opportunities across a variety of disciplines or program areas that the student might not initially see as related. This allows institutions an innovative means of clarifying both academic and career pathways for incoming first-year students as well as for second and third-year transfers from community colleges.

Could a meta-major approach reinvigorate some of your under-enrolled academic programs and raise your retention and completion rates?

5. Financial obstacles and personally challenging circumstances

There are many other, often situational, obstacles that can derail students later in their pursuit of a degree. Financial dislocations, such as running out of savings for college, a parent losing a job, or financial aid gaps, too often cause attrition. Studies show that even high achieving students are more likely to drop out if they lose eligibility for financial aid or experience an aid gap of $1,500 or more.

There can also be personal challenges, such as the need to return home to care for a family member or a long daily commute to campus. There can be substance abuse problems or self-sabotaging behavior that negatively affects class attendance. For example, I have seen students fail out due to a gambling habit that made visits to casinos more attractive than attending classes. At one institution where I worked, it was not uncommon for students with high SAT scores to get so involved in video gaming that they rarely left their dorm room and thus fell off track to graduate.

What can you do?

  • Know your student behavior patterns well, so that all student success officials on your campus are aware of and can spot the most common self-defeating behaviors.
  • Put together a crisis intervention team and devise plans for responding to at-risk situations and students.
  • Develop engagement and intervention programs that reach all of your students; you cannot help a student if few campus officials know that student well enough to recognize a potential problem.
  • Realize that some at-risk behavior slips completely under the campus safety net, because it involve students who have a low level of connection to advising, residence life, student activities, and counseling resources. Find ways to keep the population of stealth at-risk students from holding back from opportunities to connect with the very campus people and programs who might be able to provide assistance when it is needed.

Checklist: Questions to Ask at Your Own Institution

Sometimes campuses are slow to make systematic efforts to improve student success because they do not know where to start. Regardless of individual campus characteristics, graduation rates, and perceived or identified challenges, it can be a good idea to start by asking a series of questions (listed below) that can give your efforts a direction and a purpose.

Questions you might need to ask regarding your approach to student success pitfalls:

  1. Have you mapped out the student success and failure terrain of your campus from the first day of freshman year to commencement?
  2. Are the most common completion pitfalls on your campus widely known among your most committed student success stakeholders?
  3. In taking on this undertaking are all the student success offices on your campus (enrollment, advising, and student affairs) working as partners?
  4. Have you developed (and measured the effectiveness of) intervention strategies to keep students from getting permanently derailed by pitfalls along the way to graduation?
  5. Have you developed metrics to measure the effectiveness of your retention/graduation interventions?
  6. Are you evaluating your student success strategies and initiatives using a return on investment frame?
  7. Are all of your student success stakeholders committed to supporting effective interventions and are always thinking about new and innovative ways to retain and graduate students?

Once you have answered those questions, and any others that arise as you look more closely at the situation on your campus, you will be ready to get the important work of developing programs to promote higher levels of student success.