There’s No Easy Fix for Low Graduation Rates

This Florida university has devoted tons of resources and time to preventing dropouts. It’s still not easy.

National Journal
April 8, 2015, 10:33 a.m.

MIAMI, FLA.—In­side Flor­ida In­ter­na­tion­al Uni­versity’s old­est build­ing, down a war­ren of yel­low-walled, win­dow­less of­fices, Con­nie Boron­at’s team searches for clues that might identi­fy the bar­ri­ers to aca­dem­ic suc­cess. “Take our first-year Eng­lish course, ENC 1101,” she says, zero­ing in on one ex­ample. “It turns out that most stu­dents pass that course; only about 15 per­cent of stu­dents fail it. But of the stu­dents who fail it, half of them drop out.”

Find­ings like this have helped the uni­versity im­prove ad­vising, re­design courses, and pull its gradu­ation rate out of a nose­dive over the past dec­ade. Forty-one per­cent of fresh­men who en­rolled in 2005 had gradu­ated by 2011. This spring, the six-year gradu­ation rate should hit 56 per­cent, close to the na­tion­al av­er­age for pub­lic uni­versit­ies.

Since Flor­ida In­ter­na­tion­al Uni­versity opened its doors in 1972, it has at­trac­ted mostly Miami res­id­ents. About three-quar­ters of the stu­dents strolling or skate­board­ing to class are His­pan­ic or Afric­an-Amer­ic­an. About half qual­i­fy for fed­er­al Pell grants, and many are the first in their fam­il­ies to go to col­lege.

Boron­at, who leads the five-per­son Of­fice of Re­ten­tion and Gradu­ation Suc­cess, says demo­graph­ic char­ac­ter­ist­ics don’t pre­dict suc­cess or fail­ure at FIU. “What we’re really in­ter­ested in, what we have found is most pre­dict­ive of the suc­cess of our stu­dents, is their per­form­ance in courses,” she says.


Across the hall from Boron­at’s of­fice, vis­it­ors can find the of­fice of Un­der­gradu­ate Edu­ca­tion. Dean Douglas Robertson’s shelves are lined with titles like Help­ing Col­lege Stu­dents Find Pur­pose. He has writ­ten or ed­ited mul­tiple books on change-man­age­ment him­self.

“It’s still re­l­at­ively rare to have an of­fice like Con­nie’s. There aren’t many places like that,” Robertson says. He dreamed of cre­at­ing such an of­fice for dec­ades be­fore com­ing to FIU and cre­at­ing Boron­at’s team. FIU has al­ways had an in­sti­tu­tion­al re­search of­fice, but its re­search­ers spend most of their time work­ing on gov­ern­ment re­port­ing re­quire­ments.

In 2011, the year the Of­fice of Re­ten­tion and Gradu­ation Suc­cess was foun­ded, FIU launched its Gradu­ation Suc­cess Ini­ti­at­ive (known around cam­pus as “the GSI”). In­tern­al re­search has shaped every as­pect of the ini­ti­at­ive.

“You have to do the ana­lys­is of your data and not trust na­tion­al stud­ies,” Robertson says. After all, there aren’t many uni­versit­ies like FIU. It was built on an aban­doned air­field in the middle of a ma­jor city. It edu­cates more than 52,000 stu­dents each year. Al­most all un­der­gradu­ates com­mute to cam­pus, and the ma­jor­ity of new stu­dents trans­fer in as ju­ni­ors, largely from two-year schools.

The GSI has four prin­ciples. “The first point is to try to help stu­dents find an ap­pro­pri­ate ma­jor, as early as pos­sible,” Robertson says. In 2012, FIU star­ted re­quir­ing stu­dents to de­clare a ma­jor when they en­roll. Ap­plic­ants are en­cour­aged to take a quiz, cre­ated with a com­pany called Kuder, that sug­gests ma­jors based on stu­dents’ in­terests.

Second, the uni­versity must give stu­dents a clear path to their goal. Each aca­dem­ic de­part­ment has mapped out, year by year, the courses stu­dents should take to com­plete each ma­jor. Third, the uni­versity must give stu­dents who stray from that path im­me­di­ate feed­back. To provide that level of guid­ance, FIU hired 69 new aca­dem­ic ad­visers and built a sys­tem of alert mes­sages.

The fi­nal prin­ciple is the most com­plex. “The fourth is to re­move bar­ri­ers and add sup­ports on that path,” Robertson says. Boron­at’s team iden­ti­fies the bar­ri­ers. It’s up to de­part­ments, fac­ulty, and staff to re­move them.


April Lewis re­cently re­ceived an alert for a fa­mil­i­ar name. “I’m con­cerned about that stu­dent,” she said, pulling up his in­form­a­tion on her com­puter screen. Un­like most aca­dem­ic ad­visers at FIU, who are at­tached to de­part­ments, Lewis works with stu­dents who haven’t chosen a ma­jor yet or who need to choose a new one.

Di­git­al tools help her keep track of 391 ad­visees. If a stu­dent’s grade point av­er­age drops be­low a 2.0, for ex­ample, she and the stu­dent both get an auto­mat­ic alert mes­sage. There are alerts for spe­cif­ic courses, too, be­cause Boron­at’s team found a con­nec­tion between earn­ing cer­tain grades in early courses and com­plet­ing cer­tain ma­jors. Fac­ulty can send Lewis an alert mes­sage when a stu­dent isn’t show­ing up to class or not hand­ing in her home­work.

Peri­od­ic­ally, Boron­at’s team also sends ad­visers spe­cif­ic lists, like the names of stu­dents who could gradu­ate in the com­ing year. Ad­visers can then re­mind those stu­dents to take any fi­nal re­quired courses. A few weeks ago, Boron­at’s team sent ad­visers the names of stu­dents who—based on factors like un­met fin­an­cial-aid need and high school grades—may be par­tic­u­larly likely to drop out.

In-depth con­ver­sa­tions with an ad­viser can save stu­dents a lot of time and struggle. Lewis and her col­leagues say stu­dents some­times pick a ma­jor to please their fam­il­ies or be­cause it seems pre-pro­fes­sion­al, not be­cause it aligns with their in­terests and skills. “I al­ways tell the stu­dents—you’re not here to get a job; you’re here to get an edu­ca­tion,” Lewis says. With a col­lege de­gree, job op­por­tun­it­ies will open up.

But for those con­ver­sa­tions to oc­cur, stu­dents have to re­spond. The stu­dent Lewis is con­cerned about is only tak­ing a few classes, but he has alerts in all of them. He hasn’t yet opened any of his alert mes­sages. “A lot of stu­dents are at risk [of drop­ping out] be­cause they’re not on top of their stuff,” Lewis tells me, a little wear­ily. The stu­dent’s name goes on her call list.


Boron­at be­lieves there’s a bet­ter way to raise gradu­ation rates than simply reach­ing out to in­di­vidu­al stu­dents. “Really, if you can change the courses, and im­prove the courses, then you can af­fect many, many stu­dents,” she says. Every stu­dent be­ne­fits from a course that’s well taught.

Her of­fice has iden­ti­fied 17 pop­u­lar courses that either have high fail­ure rates or fail­ure rates that pre­dict drop­ping out. “We really are up to our hips in that now, work­ing on course re­design, dif­fer­ent in­struc­tion, things of that nature,” Robertson says. 

Which brings us to col­lege al­gebra. At FIU, stu­dents who want to ma­jor in sci­ence, tech­no­logy, en­gin­eer­ing, math, or busi­ness—and who aren’t ready for pre­cal­cu­lus—have to take col­lege al­gebra. For years, it was a lec­ture course taught mostly by ad­junct fac­ulty. And for years, more than 1,500 stu­dents at­temp­ted the class each semester, with just 30 per­cent of them passing. 

FIU star­ted to re­design col­lege al­gebra in 2009, be­fore the Gradu­ation Suc­cess Ini­ti­at­ive began. The course is now taught as a one-hour lec­ture each week, plus three hours per week spent work­ing through prob­lems in a com­puter lab. All day, peer tu­tors in smart yel­low polo shirts circle the math lab, ready to help if a stu­dent has a ques­tion. Now, 64 per­cent of stu­dents pass the ba­sic math course.

Not all in­tro­duct­ory lec­ture courses have abysmal pass rates. “It mat­ters very much who teaches them,” says Leslie Richard­son, who dir­ects FIU’s Cen­ter for the Ad­vance­ment of Teach­ing. Her team or­gan­izes work­shops and dis­cus­sions on ped­ago­gic­al is­sues like ad­dress­ing math anxi­ety and cre­at­ing a sup­port­ive classroom en­vir­on­ment.

At re­search uni­versit­ies like FIU, ten­ured and ten­ure-track fac­ulty of­ten pri­or­it­ize re­search over teach­ing, and in­tro­duct­ory courses are of­ten taught by over­worked, part-time ad­juncts. Courses that blend on­line and in-per­son in­struc­tion don’t make teach­ing ir­rel­ev­ant; in fact, they may re­quire the cre­ation of new full-time teach­ing po­s­i­tions.


Over time, as ideas and data have per­col­ated through the uni­versity, more fac­ulty and de­part­ments have be­come in­volved in ef­forts to help stu­dents gradu­ate, Robertson says. In Flor­ida, there’s an ad­di­tion­al im­petus. In 2014, the state star­ted fund­ing pub­lic uni­versit­ies partly based on factors like re­ten­tion, six-year gradu­ation rates, and av­er­age wages of em­ployed gradu­ates.

By pres­sur­ing col­leges to raise gradu­ation rates, Flor­ida’s new law also tempts them to be­come more se­lect­ive. It’s a lot easi­er to stop ad­mit­ting stu­dents with low test scores than it is to over­haul ad­vising, in­vest in teach­ing, and re­design courses.

“An im­port­ant part of our mis­sion is ac­cess. So we’re not go­ing to change our ad­mis­sion,” Robertson says, al­though he ad­mits the pres­sure ex­ists. FIU is already fairly se­lect­ive, by Flor­ida stand­ards. It ad­mit­ted 42 per­cent of first-time ap­plic­ants in 2013, when the state’s flag­ship school, the Uni­versity of Flor­ida, ac­cep­ted 47 per­cent. 

With its Gradu­ation Suc­cess Ini­ti­at­ive, FIU is bet­ting that tech­no­logy and tar­geted ef­forts can beat long odds. The uni­versity doesn’t have a huge budget, or a low fac­ulty-to-stu­dent ra­tio, or an ad­mis­sions of­fice that cherry-picks stu­dents. It’s bet­ting that good design will make stu­dent char­ac­ter­ist­ics even less rel­ev­ant. “The stu­dents that we get are the stu­dents that we get,” says Boron­at. “And we have to fig­ure out how to help them be suc­cess­ful.”

Cor­rec­tion: This art­icle ori­gin­ally mis­stated the name of FIU’s Cen­ter for the Ad­vance­ment of Teach­ing.

Next Amer­ica’s Edu­ca­tion cov­er­age is made pos­sible in part by a grant from the New Ven­ture Fund.

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