National report calls for improved efforts at college retention and graduation

By Denise Dick


A commission of college and university presidents is calling for more emphasis on student retention and graduation, but Youngstown State University and Eastern Gateway Community College officials say many of its recommendations already are being implemented.

The report, called an open letter to college and university presidents from the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment, was released last week. It calls for a renewed effort to make college more accessible to more students.

The 18-member panel includes presidents from research institutions, state colleges and universities, independent colleges and universities and community colleges.

“Most important, this letter is a renewed call for collective and immediate action at a pivotal moment for higher education,” wrote E. Gordon Gee, commission chairman and the president of Ohio State University. “We must make bold decisions and seize opportunities, we must do it now, and we must do it together. We ask for your help and commitment to ensuring a bright future for higher education.”

While the number of Americans attending college is at an all-time high, many don’t graduate.

“This is an unacceptable loss of human potential — a waste of time, resources and opportunity,” the letter says. “Left unaddressed, it will hinder social mobility and impede the nation’s economic progress.”

Jack Fahey, vice president for student affairs at YSU, said the university is trying to do all of recommendations.

Within the last few years there’s been growing unanimity in higher education about how to bolster retention and graduation.

“We need to be intrusive and provide very structured programs,” Fahey said. “Pay close attention to first generation, part-time, adult and underprepared students because they’re going to struggle unless we put them in a structured program.”

A software program implemented last year alerts university officials if a student is struggling so that help may be provided early on.

Another program helps students to understand more about financial aid. If their course load dips below a certain threshold, they could be required to repay more of the financial aid.

“As soon as we see where a student is attempting a lot of hours but not succeeding with those hours,” the university contacts the student, the vice president said.

The long-term implications of taking out a loan for 12 hours and completing only three hours is explained.

Through those interactions, YSU refers students to its other services where they could benefit, including supplemental instruction, tutoring and peer mentoring, Fahey said.

“We’ve known for years that students who take advantage of those things do a whole grade better than students who don’t participate,” he said.

Ann Koon, an Eastern Gateway spokeswoman, said that college also has implemented programs that have improved retention and graduation.

“Eastern Gateway recently redesigned and continues to refine its remedial courses in math and English,” Koon said in an email. “The redesigns and the related reduction of lectures and increased use of learning technologies and labs allow for more individualized learning that is self-paced.”

The math redesign uses a 24-hour help line and more hours of assistance with instructors at the Student Success Center at the Valley Center in Youngstown and the Jefferson County Campus, she said.

“In 2012, faculty already were seeing promising results from students in the newly designed courses compared to the old, lecture-based classes,” Koon said. “Students are more engaged and attendance is up. Students are doing more math themselves rather than just watching the faculty do the math on the board. These changes are starting to support the promise of students earning better grades, completing more than one developmental education course within the semester, and moving more seamlessly on to college-level course work.”

The letter calls for improved attention to non-traditional students such as giving credit for learning acquired outside of the classroom, providing counselors to assist students in planning schedules and ensuring child care and transportation plans are in place and offering flexibility in the time and place of instruction.

The majority of EGCC’s students are nontraditional with 29 the average age. Most are also first-generation and low-income, the spokeswoman said.

Eastern Gateway has implemented several strategies to encourage students to stay in school. They include requiring a mandatory college success course for all first-time students seeking a degree or certificate, requiring students to test into development education courses, expanding hours at the Student Success Center for tutoring and other support services, adding a 24/7 online tutoring service and instituting an early alert system for students not attending class.

“Additionally, the college is using more academic advisers to guide students in their course selection and program completion,” Koon said.

Another strategy advocated in the report is improving cost effectiveness and quality.

“Strategies to contain costs and therefore minimize tuition increases can be very broad-based or quite specific,” the report says.

One of the ways to do that is to narrow student choice to promote completion.

The report also urges colleges and universities to make better use of data to boost success.

“... We call on each and every institution to assess its success at retaining and graduating students, identify changes that will improve student achievement, and implement them without delay,” it says.

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