ORLANDO, Fla. — Since 2001, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System graduation rate at Florida State College at Jacksonville has risen from 11 percent to 31 percent. And it’s still going up, said Jim Simpson, associate vice president of degree and career programs.

The total number of graduates has increased 193 percent, he added.

Simpson and Linda Austin, dean of career programs, explained what change helped more students complete degrees at the American Association of Community Colleges Annual Convention.

If you’d like to double or triple your graduation rate, try these seven proven approaches.

1. Revise college policies. FSCJ officials changed the following policies that they identified as creating barriers to student success:

• Graduation fee and application. FSCJ no longer charges a graduation fee, and students do not have to apply to graduate. Simpson looked at the policies of the nation’s 62 largest community colleges. Those in the bottom half in terms of graduation rates were more likely to charge graduation fees.

• Late registration. Data showed that students who registered late tended to be in the highest-risk groups for failure. So the college eliminated late registration. Immediately following that change, retention rates for full-time students jumped 8 percent, and rates for part-time students jumped 5 percent.

2. Automate processes. Technology helps officials and students determine the most efficient paths for students to graduate. Students are sometimes even surprised to learn that they have completed degrees.

Automated processes include:

• Auto-GRAD. The institution periodically runs an automatic degree audit on every degree-seeking student. Combined with eliminating the graduation application, this program increased the total number of work-force graduates by 42 percent in one year.

A program like Auto-GRAD works well so long as the program-of-study codes in the student information system are reasonably accurate, Simpson said.

• Auto-POP. This program automatically populates students’ records with program-of-study codes for college-credit certificate programs that are embedded into associate degrees.

The requirements for many degree programs include the courses needed for several certificates, Simpson said. But advisors and program managers rarely note the certificate codes on students’ records. Having them automatically added increased the number of certificate graduates by 61 percent in one year.

• Auto-POS. An automated process adds program-of-study codes based on students’ course-taking behavior. Sometimes advisors rely on program codes they have memorized, such as “AA Intended Transfer,” so students’ program codes may not match up with the courses they take, Simpson said. And if students change their minds about what to study, they don’t always tell their advisors, so the program codes aren’t updated.

Many courses are particular to a certain program, so if a student takes that course, Auto-POS adds the program code to the student’s record. Program codes are never deleted, and the one showing the student’s original intent is highlighted.

The certificate codes that correspond with each added program of study are also automatically recorded on the student’s record.

When Auto-POS came online, the number of work-force graduates increased by 14 percent in one year, Simpson said.

When you implement an automated process like this, make sure you determine a process for updating information when curriculum changes are made, he added.

3. Implement progression tracking tools. Knowing what students need to do to graduate helps administrators and the students make degree completion a reality. The tools include:

• 75 percent completion report. Officials run a report three times a year that lists students who have completed 75 percent of the courses required for their program. The program gives students a list of the courses they need to take to graduate so they can use it for scheduling.

• Progression matrix. Program managers use this tool to track students’ progress and degree completion. The matrix showed that about 3 percent of students completed requirements but didn’t graduate. That was often because they were “missing little pieces of paper” or didn’t pay library fines, Simpson said. He is trying to eliminate those “single points of failure.” For example, the college now has a fund set up to help students with fees if that’s what is keeping them from graduating.

• Student portal progression tool. Students can view their program codes through the portal and learn their percentage of completion for each code attached to their record.

4. Maximize program design. Programs should lead to high-wage, high-skill jobs, Simpson said.

But associate programs should not require more than 60 hours unless a statute or a licensure or accreditation requirement dictates a longer program. Every hour over 60 decreases the graduation rate by 2 percent, Simpson said. FSCJ has reduced the median number of credits needed for an associate degree from 66.5 to 64.5 since 2000–2001.

And it’s important to embed certificates in the programs, Simpson said. Students who graduate from embedded certificate programs are 33 percent more likely to complete their associate degrees, Simpson said.

Plus, nationwide, the median earnings for certificate holders are 7 percent greater than for students who leave without completing a credential, he added. And certificate holders are 36 percent less likely to be unemployed, 16 percent more likely to be employed full time, and 11 percent more likely to be employed in a job with benefits, he added.

FSCJ has increased its number of certificate programs by 63 percent since 2000–2001.

5. Advise for impact. Certain behaviors predict student success. Consider these questions to determine if your institution’s advising strategy could be improved:

  • What intrusive strategies can you launch targeted at students who earn Ws? Nationally, students who receive a W on 20 percent or more of the credits they complete decrease the probability they will graduate in three years by 51 percent. In Florida, they decrease it by 83 percent. FSCJ waits a week to process Ws. That gives officials time to notify students’ professors so that they can contact their students to explore options.
  • What intrusive strategies will you implement for the spring semester for those students who receive a letter grade of F in the fall? In Florida community colleges, college-ready students who earn Fs in 20 percent of their credit hours decrease their probability of graduating by more than 91 percent.
  • How are you going to maximize the number of credits each student completes? Completing 20 credit hours the first year almost triples a first-time-in-college student’s chance of graduating.
  • How are you going to build a buzz for summer enrollment? First-time-in-college students are more than three times as likely to graduate if they are enrolled continuously.
  • What strategies will you use to encourage students to take college-level math and English in the first two years? First-time-in-college students have a much greater chance of graduating if they take English and math in the first two years. Many FSCJ programs require college English as a prerequisite for a technical course in the first 20 hours of a program and require math in the first 30 hours.

6. Schedule for success. When classes are cancelled right before the semester starts, students enrolled in those classes often take fewer credits than they originally registered for. At FSCJ, that was true for 88 percent of students whose classes were cancelled three days before the semester started, Austin said. Knowing how cancellations impact students, FSCJ officials have decreased the course cancellation rate from 22 percent in 2001 to 6 percent in 2011.

FSCJ students also have a variety of term-length options to suit their needs. They can choose four-, eight-, 12- and 16-week sessions. Student success rates are higher in the compressed terms, Austin said.

Officials have also increased the online and hybrid options.

7. Promote active learning strategies. FSCJ officials encourage the use of cooperative learning, project-based learning, internships and co-ops, simulation, learning communities, supplemental instruction, technology-enhanced classes, “right start” orientation, and ongoing strategy training for faculty on active teaching.

The college rates very highly compared with peers on Survey of Entering Student Engagement and Community College Survey of Student Engagement questions that relate to students’ relationships and interaction with instructors, active and collaborative learning, and academic challenge.

Email Jim Simpson at jsimpson@fscj.edu and Linda Austin at ljaustin@fscj.edu.