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Colleges emphasize student ‘stickiness’ to boost graduations

August 29, 2014 at 6:24 PM EDT
In Tennessee, a disturbingly high dropout rate at public universities prompted the state to change how they fund schools: the more students graduate, the more a school gets paid. Hari Sreenivasan reports on the rise of performance-based funding and innovations by schools to keep students invested.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Now our final report in our weeklong series on Rethinking College.

Tonight, we look at a funding model used by more and more states for their public universities. It’s all outcome-based. The institutions receive funding based solely on their graduation rates.

Four years ago, educators in Tennessee became alarmed by a troubling statistic.

WOMAN: Candidates, please rise.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Only 51 percent of students who enrolled at the state’s public universities actually graduated. The disturbingly high dropout rate raised questions about higher education. Is a public institution really successful if only half its students ever graduate?

It was a big question in 2010 before Tennessee’s Commission of Higher Education.

Russ Deaton is the commission’s chief financial officer.

RUSS DEATON, Tennessee Higher Education Commission: Our schools were very good at opening their doors to students, and the financial pressures were not on retaining students and graduating them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So Tennessee decided to dump its traditional funding model. Instead of paying schools to enroll students, the state now pays schools to graduate students.

RUSS DEATON: We used to count up enrollments. Now we count up your degrees, how many bachelor’s degrees did you produce the past academic year, how many students were successfully placed in jobs, how much research did the university do, simply counting up other outcomes.

MAN: This is key. Seems real easy.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now the more students that graduate, the more money the school gets from the state.

RUSS DEATON: It’s trying to find ways to get schools to respond to incentives the same way people respond to incentives. As a professor, I don’t grade students when they show up the first day of class; I wait and see how they perform throughout the semester, and then I evaluate them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Performance-based funding is catching fire; 25 states use some form of it. Tennessee’s was the first and most aggressive, tying 100 percent of funds to outcomes.

Not everyone is happy with the change. In Memphis, the new policy cost Southwest Tennessee Community College more than a million dollars.

Provost Joanne Bassett says the new model hurts community colleges, especially ones that attract students who struggle.

JOANNE BASSETT, Provost, Southwest Tennessee Community College: We have students — our averaging entering ACT is 16.5 percent. But we have a real struggle to take these students in this short amount, in two years, in three years, and get them finished.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Memphis is the poor large city in America and Provost Bassett fears Tennessee’s focus on outcomes will push schools to be more selective about the students they accept.

JOANNE BASSETT: What that formula tells you to do, whether it be directly said or not, it says, find better students, do better, produce better outcomes. We will never do that. We take anybody that has a dream that wants a college education, that wants to rise out of poverty, and we try to do the best that we can.

MAN: What’s the first thing we have to do?

HARI SREENIVASAN: But at Austin Peay State University, where 60 percent of the students are also low-income, graduation rates have climbed and the school reaped an extra $4 million.

TIMOTHY HALL, Former President, Austin Peay State University: What are you studying?

HARI SREENIVASAN: President Tim Hall says he worked hard to build strong student-to-school connections, what Hall calls stickiness.

TIMOTHY HALL: We try to increase stickiness, OK? The stickiness of an institution is what holds students in place across time. Graduation takes typically 120 hours, and the great enemy is life. Life is constantly taking students off pathway. So you have to pay attention to how life can redirect people away from college, and try to increase the stickiness of the college experience, so life doesn’t knock them off course.

You ready for finals?

MAN: Oh, yes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: To create the so-called stickiness, experiences are carefully scheduled.

WOMAN: I think we know that when we structure time for faculty and students to come together, that good things happen.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Like social events for students and professors outside the classroom.

TIMOTHY HALL: So, it might be for an English professor taking students to see a local production of a Shakespearian play. For a scientist, it might be taking our students on a biological field trip out into some area where they study something that they are also studying in class.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Like grouping students into the same classes.

TIMOTHY HALL: About 35 percent of our students this past fall, they took three courses together. Imagine a student who is a brand-new freshman, doesn’t know anyone and is wondering, when is the test in that class? I know the professor said. And that student might be reluctant to turn around and ask a stranger, but if the student is looking at someone that he or she has had in the same class now for several months and more than just one class, they’re more willing to ask questions like that.

Success is built off of such trivial matters as the willingness to ask, to get help, to turn and rely on somebody else.

WOMAN: Go ahead and click on health educators.

HARI SREENIVASAN: One of the innovations Hall is proudest of is a computer program called Degree Compass. The program works a bit like Amazon.com or Netflix. It’s a prediction engine that estimates how well a student will do in a particular course.

TIMOTHY HALL: It takes every student’s academic record and compares it with every other student we have, and on the basis of that, it can make remarkably accurate predictions about the courses that you will do well in and the courses that you will do not so well in.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Adviser Ashlee Spearman explains how the software helps students avoid taking too many difficult courses at the same time, a situation which can lead to failure and even dropout.

ASHLEE SPEARMAN, Student Adviser, Austin Peay State University: We have stats that can actually show you, off a previous course, you may think you’re going to do well in this statistics class, but according to your past, this may be a little bit more of a challenging course for you, so may want to pair the appropriate courses with that course.

And so that definitely will help the students as they’re matriculating through to graduation to not only take courses that are going to be challenging.

You are predicted to do well in the actual course, but the lab, you’re potentially only going to do 4.5 stars.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In Tyler Milton’s case, the software’s star system predicted she would need extra help in some classes.

TYLER MILTON, Student, Austin Peay State University: When you’re going to college in your freshman year, you don’t know what to prepare for. You don’t know how you’re going to do. You’re freaking out. You’re stressed out, away from home.

So it’s — it’s different. But, looking at that, I did prepare myself and I did go to tutoring classes. And because I did tutoring, because the star system helped with me that, I ended up doing better in some classes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The Tennessee model is now spreading to other states.

TIMOTHY HALL: Hey, guys.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Austin Peay’s president, Tim Hall, is moving this fall to a small college in New York State, where he plans to introduce some of the same changes.

Online, read how growing student diversity is challenging college campuses to rethink how to better serve all students.

This segment was produced by Merrill Schwerin.