One of the greatest joys as an academic advisor is watching students who we have guided along the way cross the stage at Commencement. But at an urban university where six-year graduation rates of first-time, full-time freshmen are only 34.8% and five-year rates even lower, a large number of our advisees may not ever get there.
After decades of low graduation and retention rates, Portland State University charged the First Steps to Student Success Committee to investigate the causes and develop strategies to improve these rates. As a result, several initiatives were put forth, including a one million dollar investment to increase advising capacity. Thirteen advisers were hired across campus, nearly doubling current advising staff and adding professional advisors in schools/colleges where there had previously been none. These additional resources would allow the university to take action and implement programs, such as mandatory orientation and first-year advising that would be critical to student success.
Identifying the Problem
Anecdotal evidence suggested that students were stopping out within mere credits of completing their degree. Many advisers could relay stories of students calling to say “I walked in Commencement, but didn’t actually finish,” years, even decades later. The reasons why may have varied, but in many cases the students mentioned the desire to come back and finish but “life got in the way.” It was as if they needed someone to encourage them, to nudge them across the finish line.
Birth of the Last Mile Committee
In June 2010, the Last Mile Committee was formed with representatives from across campus (Degree Requirements, Undergraduate Advising, Student Financial Aid, Business Affairs, academic units, and the Faculty Senate President). This cross-departmental collaboration would allow the committee to help students address both academic deficiencies and financial concerns. To that effect, the committee was granted authority to override graduation requirements which were typically approved through a university petition in an effort to facilitate the process and avoid losing the students in bureaucracy. Additionally, $50,000 in tuition remissions was offered, enough to cover one course for 100 students for whom finances were a barrier to degree completion. The committee was charged with graduating 50 students in its inaugural year.
Rubber to the Road
The committee chose to focus on undergraduates who applied to graduate in Fall 2005 or later but were not awarded the degree and had not attended for at least two quarters. (Note: Degree cancellation information was not maintained prior to Fall 2005, so the intention was not to disallow students prior to that date from being considered, but they were not easily identifiable.) Demographic information and other pertinent characteristics were provided for 768 students, and review of this information confirmed some intuitions and surprised others. Students of color (particularly African-American and Native American students) were overrepresented in the cohort. The vast majority of students were in good academic standing and most did not have financial issues with the university.
Degree audits were manually reviewed by advisors in the applicable departments. This level of deliberation and analysis gave advisors a rich and holistic picture of the student’s situation and options before making contact. Given the number of students in the cohort, initial efforts were to reach out to those who had 15 or fewer credits remaining to complete the degree -- the low-hanging fruit, so to speak.
Contacting students who have been gone for at least 6 months is no easy endeavor. University email addresses had been inactivated, phone numbers were often outdated, and physical mail was unreliable. Some advisors tracked down students on Facebook© or through other networks. In emails and voicemails advisors used non-specific wording and asked for the student to contact them to avoid imparting sensitive information to anyone other than the student.
Early in the process of contacting students, it became clear that a major challenge was lack of communication and information availability between offices. With many university employees engaged in the project from different physical locations and functional alignments, there was some amount of getting in each other’s way and stepping on toes. To better facilitate communication, the committee developed a simple database system to track who had contacted each student and record the content of each interaction. With this information it became much easier to provide a seamless experience to the student, even when multiple offices and individuals were required to resolve a particular issue (e.g. academic adviser, financial aid counselor, collections officer).
When students could be reached, the interactions with advisers were often memorable. In most cases, only minor adjustments were needed -- a change of major, dropping a minor, or taking one additional course. One student whose husband was serving overseas was contacted with this news and encouragement, and she was ecstatic (see her story at:http://vimeo.com/24244856).
Initial results varied by department, but overall were very positive. At the one year mark in June 2011, 130 students had graduated as a result of Last Mile Committee work, well above the target goal of 50 students. In addition, only $4,200 of the tuition remissions offered were spent. The success of the first year inspired media attention and prompted some students, including some who had left prior to 2005, to contact the committee. A second cohort of 221 students was added after the first year and as of August 2012, there are a total of 260 additional PSU alumni through the committee’s work.
From its inception, the goal of the Last Mile project was to not create a standing committee but to investigate what the university could do to avoid attrition close to graduation. As such, we aim to implement best practices that were discovered in the process. Where possible, departmental advising staff will work to case manage student graduations, checking for proper registration in the final term(s) of enrollment and following up afterwards to check completion. Business Affairs has hired a retention specialist to work with students who are considering dropping out due to financial concerns. A future goal is to reach out to students who have an excess of credits who have not yet earned their degree. The largest take-away from the committee’s work thus far is that the inability to navigate university bureaucracy deters student graduation. With institutional support, resources can be aligned to proactively contact students with options to overcome graduation impediments and they are willing to do so. With just this little bit of direction we empower students to finally cross the finish line.
Becki Hunt Ingersoll
Advising & Career Services
Portland State University
Student Financial Aid & Scholarships
Portland State University