Periodically, Boronat's team also sends advisers specific lists, like the names of students who could graduate in the coming year. Advisers can then remind those students to take any final required courses. A few weeks ago, Boronat's team sent advisers the names of students who—based on factors like unmet financial-aid need and high school grades—may be particularly likely to drop out.
In-depth conversations with an adviser can save students a lot of time and struggle. Lewis and her colleagues say students sometimes pick a major to please their families or because it seems pre-professional, not because it aligns with their interests and skills. "I always tell the students—you're not here to get a job; you're here to get an education," Lewis says. With a college degree, job opportunities will open up.
But for those conversations to occur, students have to respond. The student Lewis is concerned about is only taking a few classes, but he has alerts in all of them. He hasn't yet opened any of his alert messages. "A lot of students are at risk [of dropping out] because they're not on top of their stuff," Lewis tells me, a little wearily. The student's name goes on her call list.
Boronat believes there's a better way to raise graduation rates than simply reaching out to individual students. "Really, if you can change the courses, and improve the courses, then you can affect many, many students," she says. Every student benefits from a course that's well taught.
Her office has identified 17 popular courses that either have high failure rates or failure rates that predict dropping out. "We really are up to our hips in that now, working on course redesign, different instruction, things of that nature," Robertson says.
Which brings us to college algebra. At FIU, students who want to major in science, technology, engineering, math, or business—and who aren't ready for precalculus—have to take college algebra. For years, it was a lecture course taught mostly by adjunct faculty. And for years, more than 1,500 students attempted the class each semester, with just 30 percent of them passing.
FIU started to redesign college algebra in 2009, before the Graduation Success Initiative began. The course is now taught as a one-hour lecture each week, plus three hours per week spent working through problems in a computer lab. All day, peer tutors in smart yellow polo shirts circle the math lab, ready to help if a student has a question. Now, 64 percent of students pass the basic math course.
Not all introductory lecture courses have abysmal pass rates. "It matters very much who teaches them," says Leslie Richardson, who directs FIU's Center for the Advancement of Teaching. Her team organizes workshops and discussions on pedagogical issues like addressing math anxiety and creating a supportive classroom environment.