Increasing Retention Across the Spectrum
Florida State University Aims to Graduate Each Student It Enrolls
For the past twenty years, Florida State University (FSU) has focused relentlessly on retaining and supporting every student it enrolls. Its efforts have yielded one of the largest increases in six-year graduation rates in the nation—nearly 16 percentage points, from 63.2 percent in 1994 to 79.1 percent in 2014.
In our latest case study, “Broad-Based and Targeted: Florida State University’s Efforts to Retain Every Student,” Daniel Rossman and I detail FSU’s two-pronged strategy for improvement. First, it has sought to make broad changes in systems and processes to eliminate barriers that keep students from staying and succeeding at FSU. Key among these changes are FSU’s pioneering implementation of detailed program mapping reinforced by proactive advising. Second, the university has systematically segmented its student body to identify and address through intensive, targeted programs the particular challenges facing relatively small groups of students. A primary example is the CARE program, which provides intensive academic support and coaching to students who are Pell-eligible and the first in their families to attend college.
Both strategies rely on the rigorous use of student data to identify areas in need of improvement. FSU routinely parses data on retention, graduation, credit accumulation, access to courses, and other student outcomes to identify disparities in different departments, at different points in a student’s academic career, or among different student subgroups. Also critical are organizational structures—such as regular, cross-functional meetings focused on retention—to surface and investigate barriers to retention, streamline decision making, and coordinate implementation and review of responses.
FSU has undertaken this methodical, step-by-step approach to improving student retention for all of its students. While some of its retention programs are designed specifically for students from low-income families or who are the first in their generation to attend college, those students are not the sole focus of the overall effort. Rather, FSU aims to ensure that all students who enroll—from across the income spectrum, and with all different levels of preparation—want to and can remain at the institution and earn their degree. Thus, unlike some of the other institutions we have profiled, FSU’s student success strategy includes targeted programs not only for low-income and first-generation students, but for students who in the past might have transferred to a more-selective private institution.
There are risks to this strategy. Will students most in need suffer as resources are spread across the entire student body? We have not seen evidence of this at FSU; the hundreds of first-generation students served by the CARE program each year are retained and graduate at the same rate as other students. One likely reason for this is that the application of support resources remains evidence-driven. FSU’s data on retention has led it to focus on some groups that are not ordinarily considered retention risks, but it has also concentrated resources where they are needed most.