Of the 2.6 million students who entered college as first-time freshmen in the fall of 2019, 74% returned to college last fall in the middle of the pandemic, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Why It Matters: The pressure has been on colleges for higher graduation rates, better retention, and more engaged students. The so-called persistence rate measured by the Clearinghouse—the percentage of students who return to any college for their second year even if they transfer—is a critical metric. So, too, is the retention rate, which looks at those who return to their own institution.
- The overall persistence rate dropped 2 points—its lowest level since 2012—and after four years of remaining steady.
“That 2 percent really represents a big hit if you think of all the work that institutions have put into increasing student success and how hard it can be to move the needle by very much at all,” Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, told me during a webcast I hosted on the topic last week.
What’s happening: Colleges have deployed a variety of tactics over the last decade to improve student success, putting in place so-called intrusive advising so that they didn’t wait for students to come to them at the first sign of trouble—all of it powered by data on learning that tracks where students get stuck.
- Georgia State University, which has increased its graduation rate by some 25 percentage points in 15 years through a relentless focus on student data, pivoted many of their in-person interactions with students to the virtual world during the pandemic, Tim Renick, executive director of the National Institute for Student Success at Georgia State, told us during the webcast.
- The university, for instance, within days of starting the semester last year, flagged students who didn’t log on to online classes or did so only for a few minutes. It then reached out to them to see if they needed help—whether academic, financial, or mental health services.
- Signing on to online classes was a more reliable predictor of students who might be in trouble, Renick said, compared to in-person courses. Why? Students might not have signed on to the university’s learning management system previously but still came to class. With online classes, signing on is the only way they attend.
By the numbers: The number of contacts between advisors and students at Georgia State went up during the pandemic, with more than 100,000 one-on-one meetings.
- Like many colleges and universities, it was easier for Georgia State to engage upperclass students who had already been on campus before the pandemic.
- But last year’s freshmen were a different story everywhere, even at Georgia State: 20-30% of the university’s freshmen dropped courses or failed classes.
The fix: This summer, Georgia State ran an “accelerator” for those students with a slate of courses to make up for what they didn’t learn during the pandemic.
- 700 students enrolled with the help of federal stimulus dollars; 500 of them ended up completing classes with a grade of a C or better.
- That’s worse than Georgia State’s typical non-pass rate. But Renick reminded me that the university was starting from a deficit since none of the students in the program had passed the courses the first time around.
Bottom line: The college graduating class of 2024 might be the “lost class,” with smaller numbers going forward until commencement and students who struggle to keep up after a year of remote learning, or worse, drop out.
- The question is how much further into the future these trends will continue. This year’s freshmen—the Class of 2025—also had a year of interrupted learning, in high school. And then there’s this year’s high school seniors, going on two-plus years of interrupted learning because of the pandemic.
Key takeaway: The faculty at fictional Pembroke U. (or many real campuses) might not like it, but colleges need to become more “student-centered” after the pandemic, with a more seamless experience for undergraduates on their path to graduation.
- Here’s a good example from Renick: The federal government gave money to higher ed in three different stimulus bills, and a big chuck of it was required to go to students. Many colleges asked students to complete an application to access the money. Georgia State did. But the university also mined its own financial aid databases. “After all, we know the financial situation of most of our students,” Renick said.
- Only 6,000 students filled out an application at Georgia State for additional aid, but 70,000 received aid because the university knew they needed help.
- “Why do we make students fill out so many forms,” Renick said. “That is just one thing that gets in the way of student success.”
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Dispatch from Colorado
Speaking of federal stimulus dollars, my friend Alison Griffin, who keeps track of higher ed in Colorado and writes a regular newsletter of her own, “Boundless Potential,”
told me over the weekend that Colorado is thinking about how to use its federal dollars not to simply plug holes in budgets created by the pandemic, but to focus on the future economy, post-pandemic.
Alison writes: “A new Economic Recovery Task Force will hold a series of public meetings before delivering recommendations to the full General Assembly and Governor early in 2022.
- At the same time, a bill signed by Governor Polis (HB21-1330) authorizes federal funds to re-engage students who have some college, but no degree. The Colorado Commission on Higher Education has also convened a task force to reimagine the role of postsecondary education to build economic resiliency and strengthen the state’s workforce.”