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Bridging
the
Success
Gap

Using predictive
analytics and proactive
student advising,
Stony Brook University
turns the tables on
graduation rates.
Many might find this stat from the National Center for Education Statistics shocking: Only six out of 10 four-year-degree-seeking students in the United States graduated in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree within six years. Some universities are working to bridge that success gap, however, and ensure that students not only graduate but also graduate on time.

Among them is Stony Brook University, which has made incredible strides tackling the gap in graduation rates. As one of the 65 Association of American Universities members — a cluster of universities whose leadership, scholarship and solutions contribute to scientific progress, economic development and well-being — the University increased its four-year graduation rate by 17 percentage points (from 47% to 64%) between 2009 and 2015, exceeding an ambitious goal laid out by former President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. to achieve a 60% four-year graduation rate by 2020.
How do you grow graduation rates that quickly? “It’s about academic ability, time and money,” says Richard Gatteau, Stony Brook’s vice president for student affairs and dean of students. If students have access to all three, their likelihood of graduating grows dramatically.

With the outbreak of COVID-19, Stony Brook has responded proactively, moving quickly to provide virtual appointments in advising, tutoring, career services, student support and counseling, according to Gatteau. And since most classes already employ Blackboard, an online learning management system, Gatteau says, “most of our courses [are now] taught synchronously using platforms like Zoom.”
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Most people just need someone to believe in them and to cheer them on, especially when you’re a young kid who has come from struggle, who has come from hardship. You just need someone to tell you that whatever the statistics are, that doesn’t have to be you and that we’re here for you. And that’s something that [Stony Brook University] offered me.”
— Franck D. Joseph II '12,
BA, Political Science

Fast-Tracking Graduation Rates

The Office of Institutional Research, Planning & Effectiveness (IRPE) at Stony Brook  reports that by growing graduation rates so quickly over only six years, 1,800 more students graduated on time than would have had the University not aggressively pursued a high-tech, high-touch strategy. That success saved students $24 million in tuition fees over six years and gave them $101 million in additional earning capacity because they entered the workforce more quickly, more prepared and with less student loan debt.

Additionally, IRPE reports that Stony Brook has reduced the graduation equity gaps between women and men (70% vs. 59%); among white, black and Hispanic students (63%, 59% and 59%, respectively); and between Pell and non-Pell Grant recipients (78% vs. 74%). Almost a third of Stony Brook’s 17,000 undergraduates receive Pell Grants. The University also outpaces national graduation rates: the National Center for Education Statistics reports a 60% average six-year graduation rate; Stony Brook’s current six-year rate stands at just over 75%, and its four-year rate is 63.5%.

Shelley Germana, associate provost for academic success in the division of undergraduate education at Stony Brook, says it’s largely about “strategic advising.”
 
Gatteau, who works to promote student engagement on the non-academic side, agrees, noting that two decades ago most colleges saw academic advisement in basic terms. Today, with the help of predictive analytics and deep dives into institutional research, “we can determine who was successful and who wasn’t and why based on everything from GPA to gender,” he says.
entry years 2014 + 2015 combined average graduation rates

Percentages taken from 2014-2015 entry year students.

Source: Stony Brook University’s Office of Institutional Research, Planning & Effectiveness (IRPE)
“Everything we do is data-informed or data-driven. We rely on evidence-based practice. We measure what we do. If it doesn’t work, we do something else. If it does work, we try to make it better.”
— Charles L. Robbins,
Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and Dean of the Undergraduate Colleges at Stony Brook University

Addressing the “Murky Middle” and the “Missing Men”

The next step is applying that data to incoming and existing students. For example, Stony Brook University staff found that students who received at least one A- in their first semester had substantially higher graduation rates than students who didn’t. They also found students with at least a 3.0 GPA were likely to graduate.

So the school zeroed in on what colleges like to call the "murky middle” — students who weren’t necessarily poor academic performers (their GPAs were over 2.0) but who could easily fall off the radar without guidance and support. That included a hard look at male students whose graduation rates lagged behind women by 17% in 2015, according to IRPE.

“Historically, men made up the vast majority of students in higher education,” says Charles L. Robbins, vice provost for undergraduate education and dean of the undergraduate colleges at Stony Brook. “That has shifted dramatically across the U.S. and internationally.”

Stony Brook began conducting focus groups to figure out why men (across all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups) were falling behind. Factors included decreased efforts seeking help, inability to change actions to get different results, lack of male role models and difficulty understanding how current actions have future impacts.

To grow male graduation rates, the University launched a Male Completion Task Force that initiated creation of a student success website geared toward male students who may not be comfortable reaching out for help. Stony Brook has also grown mentoring relationships among male students, faculty and staff, and this fall Robbins plans to teach a class on masculinity in the 21st century.

Innovative Strategies to Support Student Success

Gatteau says the University’s pilot strategy focused on students from the class of 2018. “We knew the drop-offs were happening between sophomore and junior and junior and senior year,” he says. “We had 2,852 students [scheduled for graduation in 2018], and we [wanted] to graduate 1,211 to reach the president’s goal.”

That meant looking at student populations they knew could graduate in four years with some extra support. “You have to figure out who to engage where it will actually make a difference,” Gatteau says. “It’s finding the students who are lost and connecting with them.”

Among the school’s many initiatives to grow graduation rates is Finish in 4, which originated in 2015 as a program to support students facing financial difficulty in their last year of study. Stony Brook also hired two academic success retention advisers to help more of that “murky middle” understand what coursework they needed to complete — and when — to graduate in four years.

Germana, who helped develop the program, says that thus far, the school has targeted between 2,800 and 3,000 students. “Finish in 4 is proactive,” she says. “We put data on the ground and use predictive analytics to inform our advising strategy.”
Finish in 4 continues to play a critical role in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis by helping students with financial or technical challenges access education virtually. “The financial impact of COVID-19 on students is severe,” Germana says. Those impacts range from students’ not having access to personal computers or internet service to those experiencing food insecurity. “We are continuing to identify students who may need even more financial support as a result of COVID-19 and will be connecting them to scholarship awards so they can continue their educational goals,” she adds.

This commitment to student progress and advancement is at the core of Stony Brook’s Academic Success Team, which consists of 20 to 25 faculty and staff who meet weekly to review policies and procedures and how they impact students.

A third of Stony Brook students are also first-generation college attendees who may face not only college readiness barriers but also financial hurdles. The State University of New York's Educational Opportunity Program — named Educational Opportunity Program/Advancement on Individual Merit (EOP/AIM) at Stony Brook — specifically targets economically disadvantaged students.
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“From my immediate household, I’m the first one to go to college. Throughout my childhood … it was me and my mom, single mom, living on a horse farm and we never had money, never broke the poverty barrier. ...So I always felt a sense of desperation or struggle. But as I’ve been at Stony Brook I’ve been able to do things for myself. ... I have a lot of opportunities that I never had when I was younger.”
— Anthony Monaco '20, Biology Major
EOP/AIM includes academic and financial counseling and helps students cut back on working hours by providing funding that will allow them to devote more time to their studies.

The New Face of Graduates

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Germana says students who show college readiness and know-how plus have the awareness and ability to ask for help and seek resources are most likely to succeed. Those who can manage multiple roles (such as working and going to school at the same time) should also excel. Stony Brook continues to expand access to these skills for students who might otherwise struggle to graduate in four years or even six.

“Everything we do is data-informed or data-driven,” Robbins says. “We rely on evidence-based practice. We measure what we do. If it doesn’t work, we do something else. If it does work, we try to make it better.”

It’s part of operating what Robbins calls a “culture of success” that begins the day a student first walks onto campus. “I personally address every orientation group and talk to them about how they belong here, how they have what it takes, and that we want them here.”

“When you are able to demonstrate a strong commitment on campus and [create] a culture of success for students and are able to make significant differences in graduation rates, it signals that this is a place that is serious about education and what it means,” Germana says. “It helps us fulfill our mission as a public institution.”