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.
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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.”
“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.”
Fast-Tracking Graduation Rates
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.”
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
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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.”
“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.”
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.
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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.”