climbing a ladder

Here’s how Wayne State nearly doubled its graduation rate in six years

From redesigning academic advising to aligning business processes, Wayne State made all the right moves

Federal data show that Wayne State University in Detroit has the fastest-improving graduation rate in the nation among public universities with more than 10,000 students. In fact, the percentage of students who earned a degree within six years of enrolling at Wayne State nearly doubled from 2011 to 2017, jumping from 26 percent to 47 percent, according to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

Even more impressive is that these gains have been particularly pronounced among first-generation, low-income, and minority students, the university says.

While Wayne State’s graduation rate increased by 21 percentage points in six years, national graduation rates have increased only two percentage points over the last decade.

Wayne State’s emphasis on boosting graduation rates began in earnest in 2011, when it launched a Student Retention Initiative. Over the next five years, the university invested more than $10 million in student success projects. Here are four key areas the university has focused on.

1. Academic advising
“The core of the initiative was an overhaul in academic advising, which has led to proactive, individualized advising driven by state-of-the art technology and comprehensive professional development,” says Monica Brockmeyer, senior associate provost for student success. “As a result, each student enters the university connected to the supports necessary for success.”

In 2011, Wayne State was using a centralized advising model in which advisors worked out of a campus Advising Center. Since that time, the university has hired 45 additional academic advisors and has embedded them into its schools and colleges, bringing its ratio of students to advisors down to about 300 to 1.

Wayne State still maintains an Advising Center, but its focus is on helping special student populations, such as veterans and students in transition. The university also runs a training academy out of its Advising Center to help advisors be more effective.

How often students meet with an academic advisor varies, depending on their needs. “We think that’s great news, because we are getting better at differentiating our support for students,” says Brockmeyer. Students whose needs are greater “are seeing their advisor (up to) 20 times a year, but university-wide, we average maybe two student visits per year. That has roughly doubled since we began our initiative.”

2. Technology innovations
Wayne State has developed tools to support student self-service. For instance, “students are able to declare their major online and get connected with an advisor more easily,” Brockmeyer says. The university also implemented Ellucian Degree Works, an academic planning program.

“It has been fantastic for us,” she says. “It helps our students have absolute clarity about what their degree requirements are. That kind of transparency is a key principle for student success.”

In addition, the university joined the EAB Student Success Collaborative. Members of the collaborative use EAB’s student success management system, Navigate, which is a comprehensive technology platform that links administrators, faculty, staff, and advisors in what EAB calls “a coordinated care network to support students from enrollment to graduation and beyond.”

A few years ago, Wayne State formed a Student Success Steering Committee, which monitors students’ progress biweekly from the time they begin until graduation, identifying barriers and addressing them. Toward that end, EAB’s technology helps advisors reach out to struggling students and connect them with additional services as needed.

3. Student services
Wayne State has redesigned many aspects of its student services to offer more effective support. Now, academic supports such as peer mentoring, tutoring, and financial literacy education are available to all students.

“At our academic success center, we were offering really good services around study skills tutoring—but they weren’t scalable,” Brockmeyer says. “If students wanted study skills support, they would make an appointment. They would get an assessment of their skills, and they would receive individualized support over the course of six or eight visits. But one study skills counselor could support only a few dozen students per semester.”

Now, she says, that same counselor “has developed what we think is the nation’s first and best neuroscience-based study skills course, and we can deliver that course to more than 900 students per year.”

4. Business process alignment
Over the last few years, the university has aligned many of its business processes by convening action teams with representatives from various departments. For instance, “we brought together our bursar, registrar, and financial aid offices and had them map out their processes, and we found opportunities to make improvements there.”

Before this action team met, the bursar didn’t know when financial aid was going to be disbursed, so the college was delivering services in isolation. “Now,” says Brockmeyer, “these departments have a shared calendar. As a result, there is much more natural interaction. We have broken down a lot of silos and built much more coordination throughout our campus, resulting in a better experience for students.

“While we are pleased with our progress, we are not nearly done. Over time, we expect to far exceed our 50-percent graduation rate goal—while closing educational disparities and maintaining our mission of access.”

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