MIAMI, FLA.—Inside Florida International University's oldest building, down a warren of yellow-walled, windowless offices, Connie Boronat's team searches for clues that might identify the barriers to academic success. "Take our first-year English course, ENC 1101," she says, zeroing in on one example. "It turns out that most students pass that course; only about 15 percent of students fail it. But of the students who fail it, half of them drop out."
Findings like this have helped the university improve advising, redesign courses, and pull its graduation rate out of a nosedive over the past decade. Forty-one percent of freshmen who enrolled in 2005 had graduated by 2011. This spring, the six-year graduation rate should hit 56 percent, close to the national average for public universities.
Since Florida International University opened its doors in 1972, it has attracted mostly Miami residents. About three-quarters of the students strolling or skateboarding to class are Hispanic or African-American. About half qualify for federal Pell grants, and many are the first in their families to go to college.
Boronat, who leads the five-person Office of Retention and Graduation Success, says demographic characteristics don't predict success or failure at FIU. "What we're really interested in, what we have found is most predictive of the success of our students, is their performance in courses," she says.
Across the hall from Boronat's office, visitors can find the office of Undergraduate Education. Dean Douglas Robertson's shelves are lined with titles like Helping College Students Find Purpose. He has written or edited multiple books on change-management himself.
"It's still relatively rare to have an office like Connie's. There aren't many places like that," Robertson says. He dreamed of creating such an office for decades before coming to FIU and creating Boronat's team. FIU has always had an institutional research office, but its researchers spend most of their time working on government reporting requirements.
In 2011, the year the Office of Retention and Graduation Success was founded, FIU launched its Graduation Success Initiative (known around campus as "the GSI"). Internal research has shaped every aspect of the initiative.
"You have to do the analysis of your data and not trust national studies," Robertson says. After all, there aren't many universities like FIU. It was built on an abandoned airfield in the middle of a major city. It educates more than 52,000 students each year. Almost all undergraduates commute to campus, and the majority of new students transfer in as juniors, largely from two-year schools.
The GSI has four principles. "The first point is to try to help students find an appropriate major, as early as possible," Robertson says. In 2012, FIU started requiring students to declare a major when they enroll. Applicants are encouraged to take a quiz, created with a company called Kuder, that suggests majors based on students' interests.
Second, the university must give students a clear path to their goal. Each academic department has mapped out, year by year, the courses students should take to complete each major. Third, the university must give students who stray from that path immediate feedback. To provide that level of guidance, FIU hired 69 new academic advisers and built a system of alert messages.
The final principle is the most complex. "The fourth is to remove barriers and add supports on that path," Robertson says. Boronat's team identifies the barriers. It's up to departments, faculty, and staff to remove them.
April Lewis recently received an alert for a familiar name. "I'm concerned about that student," she said, pulling up his information on her computer screen. Unlike most academic advisers at FIU, who are attached to departments, Lewis works with students who haven't chosen a major yet or who need to choose a new one.
Digital tools help her keep track of 391 advisees. If a student's grade point average drops below a 2.0, for example, she and the student both get an automatic alert message. There are alerts for specific courses, too, because Boronat's team found a connection between earning certain grades in early courses and completing certain majors. Faculty can send Lewis an alert message when a student isn't showing up to class or not handing in her homework.
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.
At research universities like FIU, tenured and tenure-track faculty often prioritize research over teaching, and introductory courses are often taught by overworked, part-time adjuncts. Courses that blend online and in-person instruction don't make teaching irrelevant; in fact, they may require the creation of new full-time teaching positions.
ACCESS AND SUCCESS
Over time, as ideas and data have percolated through the university, more faculty and departments have become involved in efforts to help students graduate, Robertson says. In Florida, there's an additional impetus. In 2014, the state started funding public universities partly based on factors like retention, six-year graduation rates, and average wages of employed graduates.
By pressuring colleges to raise graduation rates, Florida's new law also tempts them to become more selective. It's a lot easier to stop admitting students with low test scores than it is to overhaul advising, invest in teaching, and redesign courses.
"An important part of our mission is access. So we're not going to change our admission," Robertson says, although he admits the pressure exists. FIU is already fairly selective, by Florida standards. It admitted 42 percent of first-time applicants in 2013, when the state's flagship school, the University of Florida, accepted 47 percent.
With its Graduation Success Initiative, FIU is betting that technology and targeted efforts can beat long odds. The university doesn't have a huge budget, or a low faculty-to-student ratio, or an admissions office that cherry-picks students. It's betting that good design will make student characteristics even less relevant. "The students that we get are the students that we get," says Boronat. "And we have to figure out how to help them be successful."
Correction: This article originally misstated the name of FIU's Center for the Advancement of Teaching.
Next America's Education coverage is made possible in part by a grant from the New Venture Fund.
This article is part of our Next America: Higher Education project, which is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation.