BOCA RATON (Fla.) -- Hasan Dickinson, who was 18 when he left foster care, held down two jobs while he was in his first semester at a large university. He ran for the bus as soon as class ended to get to work.
These outside commitments had such an impact on his grades, he was unable to register for classes anymore and was denied financial aid.
Dickinson sought help but got lost in bureaucratic vortex. This is what so many undergraduates find themselves trapped in. He was sent from one office to the next, and was almost ready to give up. But then he was referred to someone with the title "retention specialist."
Dickinson stated, "I've never heard of that." "Literally, her job is keep you in school," Dickinson said.
They found scholarship and grant money together to pay enough for his debts and other expenses so he could quit his job, keep his housing, and sign up for the current semester of his freshman year.
This is a small, but notable example of a college or university putting more emphasis on preventing dropouts. They end up with very little to show for their tuition and time. Employers are left without the necessary graduates to fill their jobs.
"Until we took a hard look at ourselves, they didn't realize we were selling them short [students]," James Capp, assistant professor for academic operations at Florida Atlantic University where Dickinson is a student and where less than 1 in 5 students managed to graduate within 4 years as of 2014.
A coordinated campuswide campaign including interventions such as the one that saved Dickinson has more that doubled this proportion to almost half in 2020, according to the latest year available. From 25 percent, 18% of students drop out in their second and third years.
These efforts represent a shift from the days when students had to swim or sink.
Capp stated, "It's about shifting in the culture."
It's also about maintaining campuses in operation as enrollment drops. The number of students has dropped by almost a million since then, and by 3 million in the past 10 years. Universities and colleges are trying to keep existing students from being left behind by demographic trends and skepticism regarding the necessity of a degree.
FAU President John Kelly said that when high school students were leaving, it was simple to wait for their applications to come in. He was sitting in his office, overlooking a campus with palm trees. "That is no longer the case."
Another reason why it is in the self-interest of public universities to deal with dropouts right now: State budget allocations have become more closely tied to how many students are graduating. The state withheld $7 million from FAU because of its poor performance in this category, according to administrators. FAU was second among 12 Florida public universities in terms of performance funding.
Bret Danilowicz (FAU's provost) stated that "when a state places money at risk for your," it is "certainly a motivator" to make changes.
Capp stated that nearly half of FAU's more than 25,000 students were Black or Hispanic and half came from low-income families. FAU was "viewed as an institution of accessibility." When we looked at the data, we discovered that the only thing we were providing access was debt. They just left higher education with a lot of debt, and no evidence to prove it.
Administrators quickly realized that students were suffering from pointless rules. Even small changes can make a big difference. Danilowicz stated that if a student fails to graduate or doesn't stay on-time, Danilowicz would change it.
American higher education is plagued by low success rates. The latest federal statistics show that only 40% of students at public universities graduate within four years. At all colleges and universities, it is just 45 percent.
In 2020, more than 25% of college students dropped out during their first and second year in college. This is the highest number in almost a decade. Nearly half of students leave community colleges after their first year.
Susan Mayer, chief learning officer of Achieving the Dream, stated that "that doesn't make sense from a moral standpoint, an economic perspective -- or from any perspective."
FAU's efforts to increase the number of students who finish college on time started with the most simple change: convincing them that they could.
Capp stated that the most important thing was for the institution just to establish clear expectations for students, stating that they must graduate within four years. It wasn't discussed before so there wasn’t an explicit goal. Every time the president speaks to students, he always says "You're going in four years to graduate."
Some faculty and staff resisted this idea. Capp stated that there was resistance to the idea. "People believed students should take as many credits as they can." However, every semester undergraduates were earning fewer than 15 credits, it was falling behind.
The university was built on an old military airfield that used to be a general aviation runway next to campus. It created a "flightplan" for each freshman. This plan plotted his or her semester-by–semester path to a degree.
This was made more difficult by the fact that different academic departments used different advising software. Students' records didn't always follow them as they moved between advisers. The university standardized these systems and assigned every student a "success net" that included an academic advisor, career coach, and financial aid counselor throughout college.
FAU also sought other incentives to discourage students from leaving. FAU created scholarships that increase the length of time recipients remain in school and tied financial aid to their progress. It was aware that students who work on campus tend to stay longer than those who work off campus. Therefore, the university nearly doubled its student job opportunities.
FAU, like many higher education institutions, is using data to identify where students are struggling and how to help them get back on track. It found that students who attended an academic success conference called "How to FAU" were able to avoid dropping out by 79. 157 of them stayed, while 157 of them left. 177 of them opted to continue their education.
Even though some interventions may seem insignificant, they can make a huge difference. Referred students from one office to the other get their name and email addresses.
Danilowicz, provost, stated that they took over a number of anonymous offices and now there is a name: "This is your financial assistance officer." "Now, they have people they can speak to at a large university."
Regina Francis didn't plan to visit FAU. But she was impressed by the personalized attention she received from a financial officer who assisted her with paperwork. Francis, a junior majoring as a sociology and political science major, said that she calls "probably once a daily" to get help with her paperwork. She plans to attend law school.
Huguette St Hubert, a freshman from her family, is the first to attend college. She hopes to become a physician's assistant. She admitted that the admissions process was difficult and that she found school overwhelming. We have advocates. There are people who can direct us to financial assistance and the career center. We have that support system from the beginning and know where we can go. They ensure you are taken care of."
Administrators discovered a lot of red tape that was creating more problems than it was worth. Numerous "administrative hold" were placed that impeded progress. For example, students could not register for courses if their payments to the university fell behind even by a small amount. Capp stated that "a hold would be placed" and then "another hold."
These kinds of obstacles can get in the way for students all over the world, according to Yolanda Spiva, president and CEO of advocacy group Complete College America. Watson Spiva stated that there are many long-standing practices. Watson Spiva said, for example, that if you lose a key, we will charge you interest and penalties. You can't get your transcript. Many institutions now realize these policies are stupid.
They are beginning to change.
Mayer stated that for a long time, our thinking was that students had to be fixed. Now, we are much more focused on reforming institutions.
Dickinson hopes to one day work as a foster kid advocate, but he still wonders about why college is so difficult.
"It can sometimes feel hopeless. He said, "I'm not going lie." "It shouldn't be so difficult to get an education."