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Monday, March 30, 2015
Building a Culture of Timely Graduation: The Story of Purdue University Calumet

In his first post for the blog, Complete College America Vice President Dhanfu Elston, who previously served as Executive Director for Student Success and Transition at Purdue University Calumet, shares how he and his colleagues implemented CCA’s Game Changers to drastically improve the number of Purdue Calumet students who are on track for timely completion.

Since the launch of the Complete College America “Game Changer” strategies at Purdue University Calumet, the university has more than doubled the percentage of students enrolled in 15+ credits during their first semester (27% in 2012 to 66% in 2014). Fall 2014 retention for first-time, full-time students increased by 4.7 percentage points. Overall, more students are on track to complete on time, and Calumet is better positioned for long-term sustainability in student success.

Complete College America’s publication, Time is the Enemy, highlighted the critical importance of evaluating students’ progress and time to graduation. Administrators at Purdue University Calumet utilized this information to reframe conversations with students and parents and showcase the potential return on investment when we make on-time graduation a priority.

About: Purdue University Calumet (PUC) is a Carnegie-classified public master’s university, with an undergraduate enrollment of 8,600 students and a six-year graduation rate of 31%. Purdue Calumet has long supported a population of typically-underserved students, including first-generation, commuter, low socio-economic status, and racial minorities.

The Challenge: Similar to other institutions that serve large populations of underserved populations, PUC faced hurdles when encouraging students to enroll in the number of credits necessary to promote persistence and completion of a four-year college degree. We know that students struggle in attempts to balance off-campus work requirements and family commitments. These challenges, along with a lack of campus cultural competencies, are serious contributors to attrition. However, university administrators at Purdue Calumet recognized opportunities to teach students and their parent/supporters the potential for a higher return on their college investment by following established plans for graduation.

The Solution: Utilizing multiple Complete College America (CCA) “Game Changer” strategies, Purdue Calumet integrated behavioral-based interventions and institutional-level policies into plans for student retention and increased enrollment in credit hours. Below are the steps for the comprehensive institutional plan:

Step 1: In Spring 2013, consistent with the CCA Guided Pathways to Success (GPS) model and a legislative mandate from the Indiana Commission of Higher Education, Purdue Calumet created four-year degree maps (“whole programs of study”) for every academic major.

Step 2: The Game Changer strategy “Fifteen to Finish” was incorporated into a mandatory New Student Orientation that included student and parents/supporters. Clear, introductory messages were relayed via oral and written communication related to the importance of enrolling in 15 credit hours. For many of the first-generation students, they were surprised to learn that a summer semester was not punitive and could be used toward accumulating 30 credit hours per academic year. A component of the initiative that resonated was the potential return on investment for graduating on time – for example, by graduating in 4 years rather than 5, students could save thousands of dollars in tuition and fees, room and board, transportation and other expenses.

Step 3: During the registration portion of New Student Orientation, the PUC Fall 2013 incoming student cohort received the four-year degree plan for their intended major of study. A number of academic Colleges put students in block schedules of 15 credit hours. The “opt-out versus opt-in” strategy provided students flexibility in scheduling based on life and work demands; however, most students chose to stay enrolled in the 15 credit hour schedule.

Step 4: Through GPS “intrusive advising,” academic advisors reinforced the “Fifteen to Finish” messages. A comprehensive marketing campaign continued beyond New Student Orientation and throughout the academic year.

Fifteen to Finish is one of the multiple CCA strategies that have the potential to change the lives of college students and reshape the culture of student success on campuses. For administrators, faculty, and advisors at institutions that serve large populations of underrepresented students, “Fifteen to Finish” is a strategy that can be easily and quickly implemented. Most importantly, it establishes the bar for completion that can reap dividends that not only benefit students through better stewardship of existing funds, but increased credit accumulation that can stabilize college enrollments. As Vice President of CCA, I look forward to further elevating the national college completion agenda and utilizing my institutional-level experiences and knowledge of Game Changer strategies to assist States, systems, and institutions in practical implementation and scaling of existing and new initiatives.

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posted by Dhanfu Elston

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