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This is the last post in a four-part series exploring how high-performing colleges and universities use data to improve student retention and graduation rates. Detailed lessons from eight institutions are shared in our higher education practice guide. This blog series highlights how some of those colleges have made progress and how others can follow their example to increase student success.

Less than 60 percent of college students earn a bachelor’s degree within six years of initial enrollment.  Low-income students and students of color complete at even lower rates. A cynic would argue colleges don’t care; they just churn through students and tuition dollars. Some within institutions might even take the “weed out” rate as a badge of honor and institutional rigor. But we think most colleges just don’t know how to improve.

It’s not easy to improve higher education completion rates. Colleges are known for having unique institutional cultures that can be resistant to change. But it can be done. Using data to identify obstacles and build a team of stakeholders are integral steps to creating a problem-solving campus culture where everyone, from administrators to faculty to librarians, has a hand in student success. Take a look at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire.

Seeking to increase the number of graduates, administrators there used data to identify obstacles to completion. Despite low four-year graduation rates (15.5 percent in 2002), campus leaders had difficulty creating a sense of urgency. As Provost Patricia Kleine described, “It wasn’t the culture of the institution for students to graduate in four years.”

So how did UW–Eau Claire create a college completion culture at their institution?

Kleine and her team started by gathering a group of faculty to look through a large sample of actual student transcripts in an effort to better understand the jagged student path to completion. They highlighted common bottlenecks, patterns, and trends in course-taking and whether or not students followed a particular track.

The faculty found that about a third of students had no discernable pattern to degree completion. When they looked to see if current students could even graduate in four years, they saw about half of the students were off their academic path. When they asked why, they found that students were confused by the general education structure and how those basic courses would satisfy requirements for their particular majors.

As a result of the analytic and outreach process, the faculty began to engage with the institutional research office, nominating patterns and practices for further study. Administrators also provided funds for academic departments to design and implement retention programs, and future funding was then tied to improvement on key indicators that aligned with the university goal of increasing graduation rates.

These initial efforts have helped to shift the culture at UW–Eau Claire toward student success. Retention and graduation rates have improved over time, including an increase in the Pell graduation rate from 49 percent in 2005 to 60 percent in 2010. And they’re still working.

The UW–Eau Claire experience should illustrate for those inside and outside of higher education that data and stakeholders can be leveraged to change the culture of a university. When faculty and other campus leaders see themselves as problem-solvers, it becomes much easier to align resources and efforts to improve retention and graduation rates.

University leaders can and should reorient the campus culture with student success at the core.

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