How 3 Universities Are Working to Raise Graduation Rates

Many people who start college halt their undergraduate studies before graduation day, and some never return to a college campus. As of 2022, the U.S. population included 39 million college dropouts, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Colleges are trying to change that. Here are three public academic institutions in the U.S. that have implemented comprehensive reforms aimed at raising graduation rates, which according to external research have had some success:

— California State University system

— Georgia State University (main campus in Atlanta)

— University of Texas–Austin

These undergraduate institutions are in different parts of the country and vary in their acceptance rates and student selectivity. But one commonality is they all have large and diverse student populations.

At each of these institutions, more than one-third of students identify as racial or ethnic minorities, at least one-fifth of undergraduates qualify for federal Pell Grants and at least one-fifth of undergrads are the first in their families to pursue higher education.

Here’s what the schools did to try to get more students leaving with diplomas.

California State University: Focus on Pass Rates

The California State University system, which had more than 475,000 undergraduates across its 23 campuses in fall 2021, according to its website, launched a major overhaul of its undergraduate programs in 2015. The goal was to dramatically raise its average graduation rates in a 10-year time span.

CSU undergraduates who began college between fall 2012 and fall 2015, and who enrolled at one of the 17 CSU campuses that provided U.S. News with graduation statistics, had a significantly higher average graduation rate than students who enrolled at those campuses seven years before. Over that time, the proportion of college students who earned a bachelor’s in six years increased by nearly 11 percentage points, rising from about 47% to approximately 58%, according to historical data from the annual U.S. News Best Colleges survey. (Six of the 23 CSU campuses did not provide information about their grad rates to U.S. News.)

[Read: Signs of Colleges on the Rise — What to Watch]

CSU’s Graduation Initiative 2025 included several measures designed to encourage undergraduates to carry full course loads and make consistent progress toward a bachelor’s degree. The university also eliminated remedial courses that did not count toward a bachelor’s and instead began providing tutoring.

“This work is really about changing culture,” says Jeff Gold, interim associate vice chancellor for student success at Cal State.

In a 2020 report, the Public Policy Institute of California urged CSU administrators to redouble their efforts to ensure that undergrads of all demographics were making steady academic progress. The report indicated that CSU students who took a larger number of credits per semester were more likely to graduate on time than their peers who took lighter course loads.

Students “with full course loads appear to benefit on a range of outcomes, regardless of their demographic and academic characteristics,” the report stated. “Importantly, the analysis also shows that students who are less academically prepared, students who are the first in their families to attend college, and underrepresented students are, on average, more likely to persist, graduate, and do so on time if they enroll in a full course load in their first term and first year.”

CSU courses that previously had high fail rates have been redesigned to promote student learning, Gold says, and CSU classes now typically include multiple projects and quizzes rather than only one or two high-stakes tests.

For instance, a mechanical engineering class at the Los Angeles branch of CSU that had low pass rates was adjusted so that it de-emphasized memorization and included more frequent tests. The course’s failure and withdrawal rate was cut in half, according to EdSource, a California media outlet covering education issues.

In 2019, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, or AGBUC, cited Cal State as an example of a university system that was removing barriers to graduation for all students, especially the most vulnerable ones, such as those from low-income households.

Georgia State University: Microgrants for Students

Over the past seven years, Georgia State University boosted its six-year graduation rate for bachelor’s students by roughly 5 percentage points, raising it from about 51% to 56%, according to data the school submitted to U.S. News for its annual Best Colleges survey. Twenty years ago, only 29% of bachelor’s students there were graduating within six years.

In 2011, Georgia State launched an emergency financial aid system that provides crisis funding to students who are making steady progress toward their degrees but have run out of resources and need $2,500 or less to cover their unpaid balance.

That microgrant system was deemed effective in a 2022 research report published by the Ithaka S&R strategic consulting nonprofit organization and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The report described the Georgia State Panther Retention Program as “one of the nation’s pioneering examples of a retention or completion grant program.”

Financial aid is not the only area where Georgia State has been a trailblazer, according to retention experts, who point to the university’s innovative use of student data.

In 2012, Georgia State opened a summer academy for students admitted into the university’s freshman class despite some weaknesses in their academic records. That same year, the university, which has about 29,000 undergraduates at its main Atlanta campus, according to U.S. News data, began using predictive analytics to identify students who were at risk of stalling academically and started automatically notifying those students of potential issues.

In a 2019 case study, the AGBUC described Georgia State’s academic interventions for at-risk students as “a model for other institutions to follow.”

Allison Calhoun-Brown, Georgia State’s senior vice president for student success, says a multifaceted approach to helping students graduate was necessary since there are many types of setbacks that undergraduates may face on the journey toward a degree.

“I would emphasize that there really is no silver bullet,” Calhoun-Brown says of GSU’s various student success initiatives. “Really, it’s a comprehensive program that encompasses onboarding and first-year support and academic support and advising and financial wellness.”

Using its extensive predictive analytics tools, GSU automatically invites students who might benefit from academic counseling to schedule sessions with student advisers. For example, people who recently received grades of C or lower in introductory courses for their majors or who haven’t registered for classes in the upcoming semester would receive invitations, Calhoun-Brown says.

Without these types of warnings, students with problems might be “flying under the radar,” but now they can receive advice and assistance automatically and immediately, she says. “That’s the kind of thing that made a tremendous difference.”

University of Texas–Austin: Student Advising

In seven years, UT–Austin boosted its six-year graduation rate by six percentage points, raising the rate from 80% to about 86%, according to data the university provided U.S. News.

UT–Austin began a multifaceted campaign to raise its four-year graduation rate in 2011. A university task force created a list of more than 60 possible reforms in 2012, and many of those reforms have since been enacted. One core element of UT–Austin’s initiative is the use of predictive modeling to figure out what kind of preexisting school programs would be most beneficial for particular students, so students can be directed to those programs.

A joint 2019 report by the Boston Consulting Group management consultancy and NASPA–Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, a professional association for educators, found that extra advising at UT–Austin likely benefitted all students.

“Importantly, our findings indicate that broad-based advising reforms may have had an outsize impact on high-need student populations,” the report stated. “Graduation rates for students of color increased at almost the same rate or faster than the rate for the general student population.”

Brian Dixon, vice president of enrollment management at UT–Austin, notes that his university helps students switch college majors as needed. Solid college advising is necessary in these scenarios since shifts between majors can decrease the odds of on-time graduation, Dixon says.

Like many large public schools, UT–Austin accepts college applicants into specific undergraduate majors. The university, which enrolls about 40,000, U.S. News data shows, now offers interactive tools to help college hopefuls discover majors that align with their interests or talents and submit a correctly prioritized list of potential majors in their applications, he adds.

[Staying on Track: A Guide to Academic Advising]

“Without getting into the right major, it makes it difficult for you to graduate in four years, because if you change, you lose time and all the courses that you took (and) the credits might not all apply to your new degree, so we wanted to figure out all those things earlier,” Dixon says.

How to Find a College That Will Guide You to Graduation Day

Cal State, Georgia State and UT–Austin focused on swiftly identifying and helping undergraduates facing academic or financial setbacks that could prevent them from receiving their degrees on time — interventions in times of crisis that external researchers have deemed useful for college students in trouble.

Experts on undergraduate retention say that college hopefuls who are worried about whether they will be able to get through college and graduate on-time should investigate a school’s student services. One positive sign about a college is if it provides significant guidance to students in times of adversity or uncertainty, such as when students are coping with sudden financial distress or when they don’t know which classes to sign up for, experts say.

“That’s very, very important, that students choose institutions that are intentional and thoughtful about that,” Calhoun-Brown says.

Searching for a college? Get our complete rankings of Best Colleges.

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