Passing grade: The secret behind ISU’s graduation rate
August is the month when colleges and universities across the country welcome incoming freshmen to campus. There is a palpable sense of relief as the next class arrives, ending the work of securing students for another academic year.
The mindset differs greatly at Illinois State. In Redbird country, move-in day definitely marks an opportunity for the campus community to greet first-time students. They are, however, embraced as future alumni. It’s a status each holds from the moment of enrollment.
“We don’t recruit freshmen. We recruit graduates.”
So say the leaders who oversee ISU’s undergraduate education, enrollment, admissions, advisement and financial aid. All concur that Illinois State does not admit merely with the goal of building a class in a given year. The mandate instead—from the president’s office on down—is to find and accept students who will stay and succeed beyond their first year to cross the commencement stage.
The difference is more than semantics. It’s a mode of operation, an attitude and approach that exemplifies the campus commitment to individualized attention. It also helps explain how Illinois State has achieved and maintains one of the best graduation rates in the country.
“We have a special culture of completion at ISU that has been built over years as part of who we are and what we do. It leads to self-fulfilling behaviors and our students’ inherent commitment to complete the degree,” said Troy Johnson, associate vice president for Enrollment Management. “Our focus on students—including our student emphasis in the University’s strategic plan as well as our faculty hiring process—is key to our outstanding student success rates.”
With a 73.4 percent six-year graduation rate, ISU is in the top 10 percent of public and private universities nationwide. That compares to 56 percent as a national average, according to the U.S. Department of Education, which compiles statistics using a six-year model that does not include transfer students. Among the schools ISU has surpassed are University of Missouri and Iowa State.
“Some of the most well-known universities in the nation hover at rates of 69 to 70 percent,” Johnson said. “Illinois State’s rate eclipses those elite institutions and is only a few percentage points less than several other world-class American universities.”
As the one responsible for leading efforts to meet strategic enrollment goals while maintaining academic standards, Johnson often gets asked why the rate matters. The answer is that the percentage stands as evidence Illinois State fulfills its promise to see that students are successful, which also means they graduate on time with less debt.
“We are able to demonstrate that Illinois State is a good investment,” Johnson said. “From the student and parent perspective, there is a tremendous investment of money and time in higher education. It is important that they see we are committed to them.”
How the University excels in consistently shepherding thousands of students from the admission process and freshman orientation through to commencement ceremonies is the second obvious question.
The explanation has multiple layers and cuts across the entire campus. All agree the fundamental element in the formula that is continually refined comes down to a unified approach that keeps the focus on individual students.
“We have a passion for student success. We know our students, we make connections with them, and we stay in touch,” said Provost Janet Krejci. “We exist for their success. Students who are admitted here should be able to succeed. If we identify students at risk of leaving the University, we think very deliberately about how we can best support them.”
Internal reflection is where the improvement process began 13 years ago with development of the University’s comprehensive strategic plan, Educating Illinois. Jonathan Rosenthal, associate provost for Undergraduate Education, recalls extensive discussion about the graduation rate, which was much lower at that time.
“Our goal was to get it in the range of 60 percent. We made it a deliberate decision,” Rosenthal said. As a result, leadership focused on charting a course for Illinois State that would make it stand out from other public universities.
There were changes to admissions procedures, such as adding an essay and fee to the application process. Other substantial shifts included redesigning the general education program. Such actions were intended to draw stellar students, which remains the goal today.
Doing so is a greater challenge than ever before, however, as Illinois is now the number two exporter of high school students behind New Jersey. The high school demographic is shrinking, which means fierce competition to enroll the numbers needed to maintain a significant revenue stream.
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Every university relies on each freshman class as the underpinning for years of financial stability. This budget reality explains why some schools are tempted to do whatever it takes to secure admissions.
One of the easiest solutions is to drop entrance requirements. This is not acceptable at ISU, where the average freshman has a high school GPA of 3.4 on a 4.0 scale and an ACT score near 24. The refusal to lower the bar is a powerful and foundational reason the graduation rate has climbed. A good percentage of those enrolled at ISU come ready for the collegiate experience.
“We have to start with students who are focused and want to graduate,” Johnson said. “These are the qualities our students bring.” With such fundamentals in place, campus efforts that reinforce graduation as the end goal are increasingly effective.
Some of what is done is subtle. For example, students are given multi-year scholarship and aid packages from the start. Incoming students are promised that their tuition and fees will not rise for four years of consecutive enrollment. Freshmen work with advisers to create a four-year plan of study. Each piece establishes a path and reinforces to students that the campus community expects they will complete their degree on schedule.
“These are powerful tools on the recruitment and the retention side,” said Johnson, who believes ISU’s policy of requiring freshmen to live on campus the first two years also bolsters the graduation rate.
While no longer the norm at many schools, Illinois State keeps the rule in place to help students build friendships quickly, feel comfortable on the campus and focus on academics versus housing issues as they get established.
What happens in the classroom is crucial, as teaching remains paramount at ISU. The University consequently seeks faculty willing and able to balance teaching with research.
“Everybody talks about that, but we actually do it,” Rosenthal said, noting the norm for undergraduate students is to learn under full-time faculty. They include students in research projects so often that it is not unusual for graduates to have partnered and even published with a professor.
“Tentacles is another tactic,” Johnson said, meaning there is purposeful and constant contact across the University about what needs to be done to keep students engaged and on track. The result is a flow of information that nurtures collaboration.
The campus is so in sync that faculty call academic advisers when a student is struggling. Advisers call Financial Aid before approving a class change that could impact funding received in a given semester. An entire unit, University College, exists to offer interventions (see sidebar).
The circle of interaction is large and never ends, creating a positive synergy and student outcomes that have ISU in the national spotlight. Other institutions are noticing that Illinois State’s formula for finding, keeping and graduating stellar students is uniquely effective.
And while administrators admit it will be difficult to push the graduation rate percentage higher, they are confident the pattern of exemplary excellence in seeing students go from freshman to alumnus will be maintained.
“We have built this to be a value of our campus,” Johnson said. “This campus culture says we will have a high graduation rate. We keep our promise to not just enroll but graduate.”
Safety net is individual attention in action
There is no place for students to hide on the Illinois State campus. Not from faculty, not from academic advisers, and certainly never from Amelia Noël-Elkins. It is her mission to find those who might be struggling for whatever reason and intervene. She excels at the job, which is done through her role as director of University College.
Formed 20 years ago, University College (UC) experienced significant growing pains before reaching its current status as the place that helps students transition to campus, achieve their goals and make it to graduation.
UC touches every undergraduate student. From Preview sessions to Transfer Days, academic advising and tutoring, the 55 employees in the unit exemplify ISU’s call for individualized student attention.
“Campuses with a one-size-fits-all retention plan are missing the boat,” Noël-Elkins said. She knows it takes the entire ISU community working as a team at the individual level to help students succeed.
It also takes a specific plan of intervention. UC has many in place to catch problems early. All freshmen must work with academic advisers, who do far more than create a plan of study. They also ask about involvement and push students to engage quickly, especially with faculty.
“Students are much more likely to be retained if they are happy here,” Noël-Elkins said, noting that failing to connect is as much a concern as making solid grades. “The best prediction of college success is behavior once the student gets here.”
UC staff, who see thousands of undergraduates during a semester, regularly reach out to other units when a student needs help resolving a problem or connecting. Student Affairs is one resource, as the division has myriad student organizations and activities.
That team also realizes the importance of keeping tabs on students, which it does through partnerships with various units across campus, including University Housing. One example is the house calls program each fall. Faculty and staff volunteers knock on residence hall doors at the start of the semester and help address any issues.
“That is just one of many ways anyone on the campus can reach out. Each employee has a different way to make a difference,” Noël-Elkins said. Making students realize the campus community as a whole is ready and eager to help is another University College priority.
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The message comes through in creative ways, such as with the GPA 911 program tied to mid-term grades. Advisers check when faculty have them posted. A potentially startling message is sent to students close to failing classes: “We know your GPA. Do you?” The email includes information about help available to get on track.
UC offers academic services through the Julia N. Visor Academic Center, which provides general workshops on study habits, taking class notes, time management and testing skills. It goes well beyond general tutoring at no cost, offering help tied directly to classes that have a high rate of failure or withdrawals. A tutor goes to the class, takes notes and is then ready to teach the concepts again when students need additional coaching.
Other support services exist for students in various populations, including those who are first-generation, within a traditionally under-represented group, or from a low socio-economic status. A multi-year federal TRIO grant bolsters the University’s ability to provide services to individuals in at-risk groups as they progress toward graduation. Students who want additional academic challenges are also guided through UC, which handles interdisciplinary studies.
Regardless of what a student needs to go forward at Illinois State, UC staff start by listening. They realize not all students enroll knowing how to succeed at a university, which is why self-advocacy is an early and important lesson.
“Each individual conversation starts by asking if the student has met with the professor. They have to be assertive in their own academic situation,” Noël-Elkins said. “This is not a hand-holding operation or meant to enable students in a bad way. We instead give and teach the skills for students to be successful.”
And they are—as proven by the University’s graduation rate.