College Completion Summit Audio Recap – Panel 5

College Completion Summit Audio Recap
University Marketing & Communications

Public Perception and college Completion

UMC: This is an audio recap of the College Completion Summit hosted by the University of Utah and the Lumina Foundation. On September 30 and October 1, 2019, the College Completion Summit brought together presidents and senior leaders from public universities that have significantly advanced their college completion rates. Chris Nelson, communications director for the University of Utah, led a panel discussion titled “Completion and Public Perception.”

Chris Nelson: Welcome to the Public Perception and College Completion panel. We had initially talked about making this a media panel, and what we realized is when we talked about public perception of the University of Utah with our communication and marketing team, we do a lot of audience segmentation. So the public is a pretty big, amorphous blob out there and so we had to break down the public. We certainly use the media to reach the public. Media has become a very specific audience for us as well as government officials, at both the federal level and the state level, and we’re talking to donors, other key stakeholders on campus, including students, prospective students, influencers of prospective students. That might be parents, guardians, friends, other family members. So when we talk about public perception, as we get into this, I just want to make sure we’re looking at it very broadly. So not just media perception because again, it’s how we reach the general public as well.

So especially for those students we have in the audience, I know the second half of the panel, the second half of our time, we’d like to spend a little bit of time on some issues that were raised earlier, which is, “How can we better communicate to students and perspective students?” Because that is, as a communications professional, that is a difficult, difficult audience, growing the area, where really all of us are media outlets right now. With my phone and my Twitter account, I can be a media outlet. All of you are media outlets.

UMC: Here’s Kim Parker, director of trends social research at the Pew Research Center.

Kim Parker: I want to talk to you a little bit about broad public views about the value of college and also the role that colleges are playing in preparing this new generation for jobs in this changing economy. And first, you know this, which is to reassure you, Americans place a lot of value on a college degree. They think it’s important for young people to be successful, to have a college degree. College graduates themselves say that their experience was very positive both personally and in terms of preparing them for the workforce. Parents of young children aspire to have their children go to college. It’s still very much a part of the American ethos.

But the same time, there’s a growing sense of discontent about the role that colleges and universities are playing in this country. An undercurrent of dissatisfaction that we’ve started to see in some of our polling. These views are increasingly linked to partisanship. And now it has sort of pervaded views about higher education, which was not the case in the past. And I think that’s interesting and kind of disturbing.

In our recent polling in 2019, we found that only 50% of Americans say that colleges and universities are having a positive effect on the way things are going in the country. And that 50% figure is down from 63% just four years ago. That’s a pretty dramatic change in a fairly short period of time. And the increase in negative views of colleges and universities has come almost entirely from Republicans and Independents who lean to the Republican Party.

We found 68% of respondents said they are headed in the wrong direction and that included 73% of Republicans, but also 52% of Democrats. It’s a pretty significant share. And so we ask those people: What are the reasons why you feel this way? Why do you think colleges are headed in the wrong direction? And Republicans and Democrats shared a couple of ideas here. They both pointed to the rising cost of college and tuition cost being a factor and a reason why things are heading in the wrong direction. And they also both talked about job readiness. There’s a perception that colleges aren’t doing a good job of preparing young people for jobs and economy. But after that, they parted ways.

So a big majority of Republicans said one of the major reason colleges are headed in the wrong direction is because they’re too focused on protecting students from views that they may find offensive. And a large majority, I think 79%, also said that professors are bringing their political and social views into the classroom and that that’s one of the reasons that their views are so negative about colleges and universities.

Now just a few more thoughts on the value of college. We do find that the public thinks that a college degree is very valuable, but they see it only as sort of a credential that gets you maybe access to the job market. But there’s a very strong sense among the public, and especially among college graduates themselves, that it’s going to be essential for them throughout their careers to keep gaining new skills, keep getting training and sort of reinventing themselves so that they can stay relevant. And that’s something that I think is useful for people at colleges and universities to understand, that the public really thinks the degree is important, but it’s not enough to set me up for success. I’m going to have to go out and keep pushing, taking on new skills, getting training, whether it’s additional educational degrees or perhaps training from an employer. So that’s very much becoming a part of the public mindset.

UMC: Here’s Mushtaq Gunja, vice president and chief of staff at the American Council on Education.

Mushtaq Gunja: First, the big picture findings are all perfectly consistent with both what Pew found, what Gallup has found: There is a drop in approval that we have found from ’14, ‘15 to ’17, ’18, ‘19. It’s mainly with Republicans, as Kim said, Republicans don’t like the politics that they’re seeing on our campuses. They don’t like the admissions process generally. They especially don’t like affirmative action. And Dems don’t like the admissions process. And in the wake of Operation Varsity Blues, I guess that’s not surprising. But the deep suspicion among Democrats about the legacy admissions and that the whole process is rigged came up over and over, both in our focus groups and in the polling sort of generally. And all—Dems, Independents and Republicans—everybody is worried about costs. So first take away: our findings are perfectly consistent with the other polls that are out there.

Second, I think that what we’ve found is that these worries, especially about cost, have led to some real misperceptions about student debt and the amount of borrowing. So we asked parents and students, “What percent of students that go to college borrow and how much do they borrow?” The public thinks that something like 72% of families and students have to borrow to go to college and that on average they’re borrowing $80,000. On average, completers, those who completed a four-year degree, borrow on average about $30,000. But that gap between $80,000 and $30,000 is enormous.

Maybe the most shocking takeaway from me in our research was that the public does not believe that we have their students’ best interests at heart when it comes to completion. In our focus group, one thing that came up over and over was that people thought that we were intentionally keeping students on campus longer so that we could take their tuition. That we were trying to prevent students from graduating in four years so that if they were there for five or six, they would just pay the public a little bit more money.

We put all of these takeaways together and we tested some mission statements. So we tested one with three messages in particular. One that was about completing quickly with a minimum of debt and allowing students to succeed economically. Let me just read the mission statement to you so that way I can really be accurate with what it was. So X college will help students complete their degree in a timely fashion with a minimum amount of debt to enable them to succeed economically in their lives. The message tested like 75%. 75% of parents said that that would be more likely to send their students to that university. I mean we didn’t get anything else in our surveys that tested nearly as well. So we checked. Our board of directors at ACE is made up of 36 colleges. I went through and I checked the websites of all those schools to see whether or not the schools are doing a good job advertising this on their websites and we are not. Like, not at all.

UMC: Here’s Marjorie Cortez, a reporter at the Deseret News.

Marjorie Cortez: Well, I primarily cover the Utah system and this system is actually in the process, led by the Legislature, of re-imagining. I think all the schools in the system are having to take a really hard look at themselves about how are we meeting students’ needs? How do we help them succeed? What are the barriers?

I think key to telling that story is just really understanding what students are up against. The Utah System of Higher Education is still in surveys of mental health needs. It’s really staggering. That intense anxiety that students deal with. You would think about it, this is the generation, that post-Columbine generation. I’m a mom and I still remember as a journalist I was always schooled by my mentors: never cry at work. Well, I cried the day that Columbine happened because I’m a Coloradan, but also because I knew my kids, who were three and seven at the time, their life was going to be drastically different than mine.

So in a lot of ways I feel like every kid’s kind of a first-gen kid now. There was no FAFSA when I checked in. I kind of had a linear path and I don’t think that’s true anymore. But I also think that students attending colleges now are dealing with things I just can’t even imagine! A third are hungry by many reports. Housing prices are out of control. My youngest daughter just started her master’s degree in public health. Her rent is $1,600 a month. And I go into her apartment and I’m looking like I’m doing some welfare check, like a social worker. Does my kid have enough to eat?

But these are kind of bewildering times for students. I don’t think anyone really argues the value of college education, but we need to show more students, colleges and universities, need to show parents and students, how is this possible for me? How can I make it work when I don’t have enough to eat or when I’m struggling to pay my rent? In the Utah system, 74% of students work at least one quarter and 45% worked full time all year round and try to go to school. If we can demonstrate how we make all those pieces fit together that would be my counsel.

UMC: Here’s Jocelyn Guzman, inaugural member of the policy corps at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America.

Jocelyn Guzman: So I guess starting with one thing too, I know we’re talking about like the perceived perception of the value of a college degree, but I also want to acknowledge that nationally there’s a perceived perception that certain groups don’t value college degrees, right?
Nationally, I grew up in community that was told that they don’t value college by external factors. And that’s internalized, right? And that’s something that when you’re brought up in those communities and you’re constantly hearing the narrative that you don’t care. It becomes something that almost comes to reality. So I’ve acknowledged that we need to challenge those systems on a daily basis. Also, thank you to the theater folks and media folks.

But for me, I have really thought, from those time I was born, that college was important. Not because someone told me, it just, it’s what you see on TV. You got to go to college, you got to do it. My parents, on all sides of my family, we come from laborers who are primarily agro laborers, shout out to the people in Hawaii.

Philipino ancestry who went to the rice plantations there. People in the Central Valley in California, doing all the agriculture there. And so when you come from a family of laborers like myself and my mom was 15 whenever she was pregnant with me, right? So she actually graduated a year early from the same high school that I ended up attending and graduating from with all these honors.

It’s these factors that you’re told, right? You’re using data in interesting ways. We were told that I wasn’t supposed to succeed, and a lot of students in this room probably share this narrative as well, but the value of college was always in my household.

And so whenever I was asked to speak today on this panel, as I do before, I’m asked to speak at any event, I talk to my community about what they would say if they were invited to speak at the panel, right?

A lot of things that I heard amongst people in my community, a lot of whom are the “some college, no degree” folks, right? A lot of whom have a lot of debt that they can’t pay back, that they’re struggling to pay mortgages or their rent payments, they’re facing eviction notices. And a lot of what they said was that people just don’t care about them, right? There’s this lack of care. And I know it’s very simple and a principal, but this idea that if you care about people and you make them feel like you care, they’re going to succeed. That’s one thing I faced. Also, from a person who goes to these events, studies the topic, is very well aware of the data. I also struggle sometimes to see the value, right? Because I’m facing these struggles that you’re seeing in your thing.

So actually I started at Claremont graduate university and my first day was also my first day of work at the institution. So I was thrown on to start doing all these initiatives and to start being a student myself. I almost did not return. I took a trip back home. Well, first of all, I had to move out on the train, which involved me taking two bags on the train, you know, just to figure out how I’m going to move into a place that doesn’t have an oven, by the way. So that’s fine. It’s just a stove top. It was promised as a full kitchen. Whatever. And I just felt very like it’s a hard place.

It’s also this existence in this space. I still struggle with it. I face the imposter syndrome on a daily basis.

And I’m a very well knowledged person. I know how to navigate institutions, and I imagine for my colleagues that don’t, how difficult that is. And so I understand why students aren’t completing.


Chris Nelson of the University of Utah asked the students in the audience:

Chris Nelson:

Where do you consume—Like what, what would it influence you with your college choice, your family and where does that college degree completion perception coming from in your personal world?


Hi, I’m Sydney, I’m from Wayne State University. I’m someone that actually uses Twitter as a way to get news. But in terms of like deciding on what university I wanted to go to as you spoke about, campus tours are huge. So like having campus tours from people who are non-faculty, or… I don’t think faculty does them. But like having people who have went to the university for a very long time ad can speak about the pros and cons honestly without having to hide their truths and hide the flaws of the university’s been really helpful. And especially when I did my campus tours, it was more of a feel, an environment and then if I didn’t feel invited in that environment, when I went to the students center, when went to where most of students congregated, then it wasn’t like I was drawn to that university.
So outside of just the campus tours it was like actually being in the environments that students house.

Chris Nelson:

At what point did they talk about completion? So it that some need for the school to be accessed, but it’s also, I’m curious in your personal experience, when completion, I assume you just assume you’d complete when you got in or…?


It was always just an assumption. You go to college tour and they are under the assumption that you’re going to be done in four years.

There’s not, at least from my point of view, there wasn’t a lot of talk about that fifth year. There wasn’t a lot of talk about that summer class. It wasn’t a lot of talk about, whether or not it might not be the school for you. And things like that.

So of course she wants you to advocate for your school. You want us to persuade people to come to your school. But at the same time you have to be realistic or the fact that there are choices to make when you start school. And so like I said, I didn’t feel it was very present.

Also, over retention rates where I really expressed, or at least I don’t remember, they were expressed fully. We saw what they did to work on retention rates were what I saw or what didn’t make me want to choose that school more. It was more so what the university could do for me.


Thank you for listening. Find the audio recap of the next panel discussion, “What’s Next to Move the Needle on Completion?” and other summit proceedings at

College Completion Summit Audio Recap – Panel 6

College Completion Summit Audio Recap
University Marketing & Communications
Student discussion group reports and closing remarks


This is an audio recap of the College Completion Summit hosted by the University of Utah and the Lumina Foundation.

On September 30 and October 1, 2019, the College Completion Summit brought together presidents and senior leaders from public universities that have significantly advanced their college completion rates.

Gretchen Syverud, director of strategy integration for the Lumina Foundation, prefaces the reports from student group discussions.


But the biggest themes that I heard that crossed each of these different topics were transparency. And I’d say student appropriate transparency. Someone mentioned just a minute ago, “I may not sit through a three-hour board of trustees meeting, but I want to know what’s going on.”

And empowering students. While this group has maybe self-selected to be here, all students are invested in their own education.


Students present the results of group discussions.


One of the big things we talked about were how to improve like the quality of advising meetings and also how to improve the accountability of advisors. A lot of our students in college face, not so much, they don’t like deal with fear. But more so like they’re hesitant to talk to an advisor, because in a lot of situations advisors don’t necessarily look like you.

Just because some students come in and they may struggle with the specific course load. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not cut out for that specific major or program. It could be because they have a lot of stuff going on at home. Or it could be financial reasons, it could be a lot of everything’s going on. But most advisors don’t actually take that extra step to look into that.

Another thing was if we could do some sort of a thing to hold an advisor accountable, like there’s some sort of survey. So instead of like advisors being assigned based on last name, it can be more so, if it’s more so personality based, so they can understand what’s actually going on with you.


So we talked a lot about how we want to reduce the amount that we’re charging or that we want to give money to students. However, it’s not creating a learning aspect to it. So students are missing out on a critical part of how to use their money in the most effective ways. So we’re able to give them scholarships. But, how are we making sure that they’re using all of those things to the full potential, that next year they’re still going to be able to enroll and complete?
But we need to make it a more national level of talking about financial wellness for students. Because it leads to mental health as well and physical health.
Student: I’m a student that sits on our board of trustees. And a really big thing for Purdue that we’ve been proud of for the past few years is our tuition freeze. instead of looking at the idea of, “How do we get scholarships to students? How do we just assume that tuition is raising every year or just a matter of fact?” It’s, “Why don’t we look at the tuition itself? How do we look dollar for dollar, how we are providing them a better education?” If something we can’t justify as providing a better education to the student, why are we spending money on it?


Question to the students from Syverud.


If you’re a student, raise your hand. Do you like the word predictive analytics? How do you feel about that?


A student responds.


I study economics and anthropology and a huge aspect of economics is taking data and applying it to larger social issues and social constructs. But a lot of anthropology is combining the two because I think about how much these numbers in this data actually represent people, so I was a little off put by the idea of predictive analytics because a lot of the times you have to recognize the coders, due to the world that we live in, they’re approaching things from racial and class biases and this then comes through with the code. So, to actually assume that black and brown students from lower income communities are going to do worse than students just by nature, I believe is a false assumption and I feel like it’s really important that administrators and schools actually ask the students, “What do you need? Have you ever filled out the FAFSA before? Do you feel college ready? Do you feel like you’re financially literate?” These students are no longer 10-year-old children They are young adults. Let students have some accountability, give them back their agency. Let them tell you what they need.


last spring another graduate student and I served as peer mentors for a UB seminar, a freshman seminar, specifically designed for students who had previously failed the course. So it was literally a class for failures. many students started by asking their faculty members for help. So it was interesting to hear that with all the resources on campus, students still feel most comfortable in many situations, reaching out first to their faculty members. So at these big R1 institutions, they’re research-first schools, not teaching schools and faculty members just don’t have the time to address these students’ concern, which is worrisome, right?
And then the other one was a couple of students had mentioned going to counseling services, but as soon as you walk in the door, you sign in and it’s what’s your person number? And so everything at these big schools is, what’s your person number and students had actually voiced to us that they felt like a number.


Here’s Syverud again.


Empowering students to define their own success and create their own plan translates to maybe being a little put off by the 15 to Finish or four years graduation is a measure of success.


Students elaborate.


Right before we walked out of that room, one of the other students actually asked all of us, I think it was about 15 of us. And they’re like, “Who does not like this vision for a campaign, 15 to Finish, any of that.” And I am pretty sure over 90% of us raised their hand. We go to college to get an education, to get a degree. But, so, as an engineer it’s quite literally impossible to finish in four without experiencing some mental illness or just going through it. But also when I’m earning my degree, I want to be learning in my classes.
I want to be able to have knowledge that I’m able to put forward in the job market, in graduate school, whatever I plan on doing next when I finish, when I complete my degree.
But also if I want to finish it four and I have to take summer classes now my summers are away from me doing research, getting an internship, doing something that will help me after I leave the institution. So for us, we didn’t feel that finishing in four is the best motto. It’s finish when you can finish. I know that everyone’s trying to get us out of school, have a degree. But definitely I don’t want to be an individual—because if I exit, if I graduate with a degree and I don’t have a job afterwards, I just started back from the beginning.
Student: I work in the Dean of Students Office as a student advocate and part of my role is to oversee compassionate medical withdrawal process for the university. And one of the major things that I hear from students about why they are reluctant to do that is because it’s going to make it longer for me to graduate. I won’t graduate in four years. I won’t be able to do this. I won’t be able to do that. And basically, for these students that are already struggling with issues, half our withdrawals, more than half are due to mental health reasons.

For these students that are already struggling with these issues, sometimes this Finish in Four campaign can make people feel like they are failing. When really they’re actually stopping and getting help for something that is out of their control. And so, I understand why we have these campaigns and I think they are important to an extent, but I do think we have to be mindful on how we present them to students.


Martha Bradley, Sr. Associate Vice President For Academic Affairs at the University of Utah, concludes the summit.

Martha Bradley:

Some of you may know that the U of U Health Sciences is actually really famous for the exceptional patient experience.
So, building on that success, we launched what we called the Exceptional Educational Experience, or E3. And what that meant in the first year was to do research about the student experience, but listening to students. When asked about the exceptional patient experience, then-VP of Health Sciences, Lorris Betz said, “A medical experience is only exceptional if the patient thinks it is.”
So, we’ve taken that to heart and we’re listening to what students have to say about their experience at the U. Their comments fell in four big buckets. Navigating. Think about all the obstacles our students experience. Belonging. And many of you have talked about belonging in different ways today. Learning. They’re here to learn. They tell us that when they walk in the door. And then thriving. So if a student is held up for weeks waiting for the results of his financial aid application, they are going to interpret it as us not wanting them to attend.

If a student cannot find a person on campus to look in the eyes and have them advise them about ways they could enhance their experience or solve a problem, if they can’t find a way to connect to a community, they will feel like they don’t belong, that we don’t value them or respect them, that we don’t hear them. And as we say in Utah, “What the heck?” Right? If a student sits in a classroom and a lazy teacher doesn’t necessarily prepare as well as they should have or doesn’t respond to emails or doesn’t give thoughtful assignments, they will be unmotivated. They will be uninspired. And most importantly, they will fail to thrive. If a student can’t pay their bills, if they can’t find support for the issues they face, if they are so overwhelmed that they want to throw in the towel, they will. They will drift away and disappear.

So how do we fully engage students who have to hurry to work at their second job so they can feed their family and pay their rent? And then we invite them to sit for an hour in the lobby of the library and listen to a brown bag lecture. They will cave and they won’t be retained and they won’t complete. And their lives will be changed and it will be our bad. So remember when one of us said, “What’s getting in the way of their graduating?” Remember the next part? It’s life.

Do you remember the comment? “I’m really bad at asking for help.” But if we listen, these wonderful students who spoke up today, if we’ll listen to them. They want us to know how to make the connections between what we ask them to do and their lives in the future. They want to connect to a community that is larger than the one that they came in with when they began and that anchors them and gives them meaning and a sense of belonging. They want to know about our opportunities, but also about our distractions. If there’s going to be an interruption in terms of traffic or a construction site makes it impossible for you to walk across campus as you plan, they want to know.

They want better communication. Students have told us at this meeting, education is power. It is giving me a voice. At undergraduate studies, we had a retreat last Friday and we had a student and parent panel at the end and we had been focusing on the Exceptional Educational Experience. We asked the students to talk about an exceptional educational experience they had had and to a person, they mentioned a human interaction. It was when another human on campus had shown them kindness. It was a human who engaged them on a deeper level than they had to, that might’ve been out of their job description, but was willing to engage in this interaction.

The parents were so interesting. The parents hoped that we would be kind. And I remember, and I’ll never forget a particularly poignant moment when one student, Abdul said, “Just remember my face,” and he had this wonderful face, “Remember my face.” So, when we are focusing on retention and completion and the metrics we worship because of the forces we feel from the legislature or performance-based funding, we must never forget the faces of our students. Of Abdul or Lizzie or Aspen or Sidney or Quincy or Samora. They have trusted us to help them have a wonderful life and it’s honest to deliver. Let’s all be all in. So, thank you so much for being here with us on our campus. We’ve loved having you here.
UMC: Thank you for listening. Find the audio recaps of the preceding sessions at

Leaders in Higher Education Share Experiences Increasing College Completion Rates in a Rapidly Changing Environment

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories about The College Completion Summit held at the University of Utah on Sept. 30-Oct. 1, 2019. The title of this panel was “What’s Next to Move the Needle on Completion?” Dan Reed, senior vice president for Academic Affairs, gave the keynote remarks and served as moderator. Panel members included: Deneece Huftalin, president, Salt Lake Community College; Julia Michaels, deputy executive director of the Center for Public University Transformation, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities; and William Moses, managing director for The Kresge Foundation’s Education Program, The Kresge Foundation.

By Morgan Aguilar, communications specialist, University Marketing & Communications


The world is changing. The job market is increasingly global and every day students are learning and working alongside people with very different backgrounds from their own, so it’s no surprise that the pathways students are taking to enter the job market are rapidly changing, too.

At the second day of the College Completion Summit hosted by the University of Utah and Lumina Foundation, educators considered how they can continue to increase six-year graduation rates in a world of accelerated change.

“The really big questions don’t change,” said Dan Reed, senior vice president for Academic Affairs at the University of Utah. “They’re about ensuring success of our students, preparing the population to be thoughtful citizens and allowing them to compete in the global world. But the answers to the questions do change. They change every generation as we evolve our social compact to meet new student needs.”

As jobs continue to be disrupted by automation and options for technical schools increase, Reed stressed the importance of looking at higher education as a piece of the lifelong learning puzzle. Students are not only heading to school for the four years to six years after high school. They are working for a few years first and returning later for retraining and certifications. They expect to be able to access content and services anywhere at any time and they want to understand the relevance of what they are learning in the classroom.

“Higher education has changed dramatically since its beginning,” said Reed. “The challenge is how do we continue to extend the appropriate access and meet students where they are while preserving what we know are the long-tested verities of higher education.”

Panelists for the conversation on moving the needle on completion included Deneece Huftalin, president of Salt Lake Community College (SLCC), Julia Michaels with the Association of Public Land Grant Universities (APLU) and William Moses with the Kresge Foundation. The welcome address was provided by Dave Woolstenhulme, the interim commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education, who discussed its goal of ensuring every high school in Utah has a college access advisor.

“The advisors we currently have in the high schools are dealing with everything from making sure the kids are fed to their mental health and school safety,” said Woolstenhulme. “They don’t always have the time to really give some good career advice, to help students process FAFSFA applications, scholarships and to navigate the system. With these college access advisors, hopefully we’ll get those students on the right pathways from the beginning.”

At SLCC, Huftalin said they are focused on not only increasing student completion but also increasing participation and completion for students of color. She said people don’t always understand why these are two separate parts of SLCC’s strategic plan until they better understand the equity gap.

“People often have no idea what the gap looks like,” said Huftalin. “When you share that with them, they are just stunned and stunned into action, so I think it has been really important that we differentiated between those two.”

The APLU is working to dramatically increase completion by 2025. Michaels described its “powered by publics” initiative that aims to support completion, eliminate achievement gaps and drive toward equity.

“This is tremendously complicated work and local context matters so much,” said Michaels. “We are relying on the institutions to tell us what’s important to them and what would be valuable so it’s very much a university-driven effort.”

The panelists agreed that focusing on the populations that aren’t graduating is going to increase overall completion quicker while also closing the equity gap. Moses reminded attendees that it’s important to remember results are possible.

“When we started this work about a decade ago, I don’t think we realized you could start to move the needle,” said Moses. “It was all hypothetical. But we’re starting to see real change and now I’m convinced it is not only the right thing to do, but it’s something we can succeed at.”

Several students weighed in with their ideas on how educators can ensure more students earn degrees. In addition to affordability and teaching students how to manage their financial aid and scholarship money, students talked about the importance of personalized advising meetings, where advisors are able to better understand the diverse ways in which students are approaching and completing their college educations.

In her closing remarks, Martha Bradley, the associate vice president for academic affairs at the University of Utah, emphasized that a student’s educational experience is only exceptional if they say it is. The U spent a year asking students what would enhance their time on campus and help them graduate quicker.

“If a student cannot find a person on campus to look them in the eyes and advise them about ways they could enhance their experience or solve a problem, they will feel like they don’t belong,” said Bradley. “If a teacher doesn’t respond to emails or give thoughtful assignments, they will be uninspired and unmotivated, and they will fail to thrive. If a student can’t pay their bills or find support for the issues they face and if they are so overwhelmed that they want to throw in the towel, they will.”

Bradley said it is on all who attended the conference to work together to make the educational system better.

“They have trusted us to help them have a wonderful life and it’s on us to deliver,” said Bradley. “Let’s all be all in.”

The Public Perception of College

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories about The College Completion Summit held at the University of Utah on Sept. 30-Oct. 1, 2019. The title of this panel was “Completion and public perception.” Panel members included: Marjorie Cortez, higher education reporter, Deseret News; Mushtaq Gunja, vice president and chief of staff, American Council on Education; Kim Parker, director of social trends research, Pew Research Center; and Joscelyn Guzman, student representative, Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. Chris Nelson, communications director at the University of Utah, moderated the discussion.

Asked by pollsters whether a college degree is valuable, Americans answer with a resounding “yes.” But those same polls also reveal a darker view.

“There’s a growing sense of discontent about the role colleges and universities are playing in this country,” said Kim Parker, director of social trends research at the Pew Research Center, who spoke about public perception during the College Complete Summit hosted by the University of Utah and Lumina Foundation.

Only 50% of Americans say that colleges and universities have a positive effect on the country, down from 63% just four years ago—“a pretty dramatic change in a fairly short period of time,” Parker said. And even though, on average, students with a bachelor’s degree will make $1.1 million more over their lifetime than those without a degree, only 45% of Americans think colleges are successfully preparing students for specific jobs, according to polling by the American Council on Education, said Mushtaq Gunja, ACE’s vice president and chief of staff.

ACE has also conducted a dozen focus groups of parents of perspective college students. “The most shocking takeaway,” said Gunja, “was that the public does not believe we have their students’ best interests at heart. . . One thing that came up over and over was that people thought that we were intentionally keeping students on campus longer so that we could take their tuition.”

Some of the disillusionment about higher ed is along partisan lines. Although both Republicans and Democrats were worried about rising college costs—often assuming that more students take out student loans than is actually the case, and at higher amounts—Republicans are more likely to complain that colleges are too liberal. Both Republicans and Democrats are leery of the college admission process, but Democrats were concerned that the process is rigged towards legacy admissions, while Republicans are more likely to take issue with affirmative action admission policies that take race and ethnicity into consideration.

Public perception affects how Latinx and African-American students view themselves, noted panelist Joscelyn Guzman, a Claremont College graduate student who is part of Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. “There’s a perception that certain groups don’t value college degrees” and that perception becomes internalized in the students and their parents. She understands, she said, why students drop out of college. “I feel the Imposter Syndrome on a daily basis,” she said of herself.

Schools in Utah’s higher ed system “are having to take a really hard look at themselves about whether they’re meeting students’ needs,” said Deseret News reporter Marjorie Cortez. “I think the key to telling that story is really understanding what students are up against”—the intense anxiety of a post-Columbine generation that worries not just about school shootings but about food insecurity and rising housing costs. “In a lot of ways,” said Cortez, “I feel like every kid’s kind of a first-gen kid now.”

Data Is Key But So Is The Human Touch

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories about The College Completion Summit held at the University of Utah on Sept. 30-Oct. 1, 2019. Vistasp M. Karbhari, president of the University of Texas at Arlington, gave a keynote address. A panel followed on “Data and Technology Contributions to Completion.” Panel members included: Paul Dosal, vice president for Student Affairs & Student Success at the University of South Florida; Frederick Corey, vice provost for Undergraduate Education at Arizona State University; and Rachelle Germana, associate provost for Academic Success at Stony Brook University. The moderator was Frank Dooley, senior vice provost for Teaching and Learning at Purdue University.

Data can be revealing, even predictive, and technology can keep students plugged into online lectures at two in the morning. But it’s still human interaction that makes the difference between students dropping out or staying in school.

That was one takeaway from the panel “Data and Technology Contributions to Completion” at the recent College Completion Summit sponsored by the University of Utah and Lumina Foundation.

“If we automate everything, we will fail,” cautioned keynote speaker Vistasp Karbhari, president of the University of Texas at Arlington, where 17,000 students are getting degrees online and a significant number of undergraduates are over the age of 30. “At the end of the day, we need the human touch.”

“We expect that once we have the data it’s going to give us one solution that looks across the entire population,” he added. “What we forget is that predictive analytics tells us why something might not be happening. It doesn’t automatically tell us what we should be doing.”

At Arizona State University, a “cultural transformation” in 2007 helped the school organize around the student, “rather than the faculty or the university itself,” noted Fred Corey, vice provost for undergraduate education. And this is where technology was a helpful partner. Through an “E-Advisor” suite of tools, students at ASU can, for example, map out the progress they’re making toward their degree, discover if they’re off-track, then change direction. “This saves the face time for other pressing issues, like ‘what am I doing here?’ or ‘I feel like I’m lost in the world.’”

“It’s really a combination of high tech and high touch,” said Stony Brook University’s Rachelle Germana, associate provost for academic success. The school’s Academic Success Team meets weekly, going through 10,000 bagels in the past eight years as they’ve wrestled with how to use increasing mounds of data in the service of its students. One strategy: A year-out scheduling model so students can plan their classes better. Stony Brook has increased its graduation rate by 17% in the past six years.

At the University of South Florida, the school’s Persistence Committee uses both data and a case management approach, said Paul Dosal, vice president for student affairs and student success. And this has led to relying not just on academic advisors, but teachers and residence hall advisors. “The reality is, we have hundreds of people on our campuses who are trained, and have the passion, to work with students.”

Universities have long used data to decide whom to admit, trying to determine who will likely succeed, admitting those students and rejecting the rest. But panel moderator Frank Dooley, senior vice provost for teaching and learning at Purdue University, suggested a different approach. “I think that our collective mission is to resist that trend. . . . To use the data—not to decide who to exclude, but who to include and how we’re going to help those individual students succeed.”

Achieving Equity in Completion

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories about The College Completion Summit held at the University of Utah on Sept. 30-Oct. 1, 2019. The title of this panel was “Leveling the Playing Field: Achieving Equity in Completion.” Panel members included: David Lassner, president of the University of Hawai’i; Monica Brockmeyer, associate provost, Wayne State University; Timothy Renick, senior vice president for Student Success, Georgia State University; and Nikos Varelas, vice provost for Undergraduate Affairs and Academic Programs, University of Illinois at Chicago. The moderator was Mary Ann Villarreal, vice president for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Utah. The panel discussion was preceded by a keynote address given by Dhanfu Elston, vice president for strategy at Complete College of America.

Wayne State University once made headlines for all the wrong reasons: enrollment was down, only 26% of students were graduating, school budgets were being cut, and the City of Detroit was headed into bankruptcy. But dismal statistics at schools like Wayne State are turning around, reported panel members at the College Completion Summit hosted by the University of Utah and Lumina Foundation.

At George State University in Atlanta, where the student body is now 74% non-white, graduation rates are rising and the school graduates more African-American students than any other college or university in the United States, reported Timothy Renick, the school’s senior vice president for student success, speaking on the panel “Leveling the Playing Field: Achieving Equity in Completion.”

Still, nationally, that playing field is still uneven, said keynote speaker Dhanfu Elston, vice president for strategy at Complete College America, based in Indianapolis. Elston travels the country talking about college completion rates and strategies.

“It’s always a great conversation when you talk about national data. Everyone is like, ‘Oh, that’s a challenge, we need to work on that,’” Elston said. “And then you say, ‘and here’s your state,’ and they say, ‘Oh, yes, problematic.’ And you go, ‘and here’s your institution,’ and they’re like ‘Oh, that can’t be right. That data can’t be right.”

The data shows, he said, that more students nationwide are enrolling in college part time, that these students often don’t graduate and that “African-Americans and Hispanics are underrepresented in the fastest-growing, highest-paying occupations—STEM, health and business.”

Among the strategies that have proved successful at Georgia State University: Assessing the “800 risk factors” that apply across-the-board for all students. Over the past year, alerts promoted by that data have led to 102,000 one-on-one meetings between advising staff and students. “What we’ve seen is that it’s disproportionately benefited the students who were served the least well under the old bureaucracy, where these kinds of proactive interventions simply didn’t exist,” Renick said. “So this institution that was once a poster child nationally for equity gaps is now an institution where race, ethnicity and income level do not predict which students are going to be successful.”

At Wayne State, graduation rates have jumped 22% in the past seven years, including for African-Americans, Latinx, first-generation and Pell Grant students, said Monica Brockmeyer, associate provost for student success.

At the University of Illinois at Chicago, retention has increased by 20 percentage points, said Nikos Varelas, vice provost for undergraduate affairs. Two strategies drove that progress: “transition coaching” in local high schools and encouraging students to stay in school year-round by giving them a buy-one-get-one-free deal on summer tuition.

At the University of Hawai’i, which has a large population of indigenous, Filipino and Pacific Islander students, the school has closed gaps in college attendance and graduation rates, said President David Lassner. “We put you into a four-year path and you have to opt out, not in.”

“We can’t just sit inside our institutions and bemoan who shows up at our doors and how unprepared they are,” Lassner said. Gaps in learning, and other challenges, come with the students. But colleges and universities, he said, “are institutions that can make it so that their children don’t face the same challenges.”

Solving the Affordability Puzzle

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories about The College Completion Summit held at the University of Utah on Sept. 30-Oct. 1, 2019. The title of this panel was “Innovative financial and affordability solutions.” Panel members included: Ruth Watkins, president of the University of Utah; Bridgette Cram, assistant vice president for Academic and Student Affairs at Florida International University; Shannon Goodman, vice president for Enrollment at the University of North Texas; and Jorge Pérez, associate vice president of the University of Tennessee. The moderator was Beth Akers of the Manhattan Institute.

Students heading off to college these days, notes Beth Akers, don’t look like the ones in old movies, loading a suitcase and bedspread into their parents’ car and driving away towards a coming-of-age story.

“Quite simply,” said Akers, an economist with the Manhattan Institute, “our students today are not children.” Nearly a quarter of them work full time and an equal number have children of their own. A third are over the age of 25.

Changing demographics—and the financial burdens they impose—are a major reason why students are taking longer to graduate college or are giving up completely, agreed panelists who shared the stage at the College Completion Summit hosted by the University of Utah and Lumina Foundation. The good news, they said, is that universities across the country are coming up with strategies to ease those burdens.

“We’re working at reducing failure points along the way,” said Shannon Goodman, vice-president for enrollment at the University of North Texas. One strategy: Figuring out a way to keep struggling students continuously enrolled. That includes a lock-in tuition rate for all four years and an incentive of a $100-a-credit-hour discount for winter, spring and summer if a student takes 15 credit-hours in the fall.

At the University of Utah, according to President Ruth Watkins, students are “quite debt averse,” which often leads them to go to school for a year, take off a year to work, and repeat the cycle. “What we observed was that a significant number of students quit after year three, or even year four. Or they take three years to finish that last year.”

To help, the U is launching a tuition-assistance program for seniors, with repayment based on 2.85 percent of the student’s future salary. The pilot program is supported by a $6 million fund from “investors who are long-term friends of the university,” said Watkins. Easing the investors’ minds: Utahns have “a very low default rate.”

In the University of Tennessee system, strategies include a “last-year scholarship” that requires mentoring and eight hours of community service. The “UT Promise,” said Jorge Pérez, associate vice president for academic affairs and student success, will launch in the fall of 2020.

At Florida International University, where half of its 56,000 students receive government-funded Pell Grants, one approach to keeping students in school includes helping them through financial emergencies when the exigencies of life—from hurricanes to tooth aches—make staying the course difficult.

“Our research shows that the average award is $1,000 and it really does make a difference,” said Bridgette Cram, assistant vice president for academic and student affairs. Over 97% of the students who have received emergency funds have either graduated or are still in school. The process is time-intensive, she said, and is decided on a case-by-case basis.

One key to success, she added, is getting the word out to students through course syllabi and via student ambassadors, because students are often shy or embarrassed about asking for help.

“One of the things we’re trying to get better at,” noted University of North Texas’s Goodman, “is knowing the signs” of student financial distress before it tempts students to quit school.

Building Culture of Completion

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories about The College Completion Summit held at the University of Utah on Sept. 30-Oct. 1, 2019. The University of Utah and Lumina Foundation hosted the summit, which drew representatives of 22 institutions to the U’s campus to discuss college completion challenges and opportunities. The title of this panel was “Supporting and Engaging the Student.” Panel members included: Carolyn Bassett, associate provost for student success, University of Massachusetts Amherst; Ann Bisantz, dean of Undergraduate Studies, University at Buffalo; Louis Hunt, senior vice provost for Enrollment Management and Services, North Carolina State University; Teri Longacre, vice provost and dean of Undergraduate Student Success, University of Houston; and Michael Mardis, chief student affairs officer, University of Louisville. The keynote speaker and moderator was Kim Wilcox, chancellor, University of California, Riverside.


Kim Wilcox, chancellor of the University of California, Riverside, uses three words to describe how his institution increase graduation rates by 20 percentage points in seven years: culture, people and programs.

“When we talk about student success at Riverside, we tend not to talk about individual programs,” said Wilcox. “We talk about the special way our campus has evolved and how we work to maintain that. We talk about primary practices and all the things that are the nuts and bolts here. We think about it as a culture first, and the program pieces get added on after.”

Wilcox was the keynote speaker and moderator for a panel on “Supporting and Engaging the Student” at The College Completion Summit hosted by The University of Utah and Lumina Foundation on Sept. 20, 2019. The summit took place at the University of Utah and drew senior leaders from 22 institutions across the country.

Panelists agreed that cultural shifts across their campuses were key to making comprehensive changes aimed at driving student success and degree completion.

Ann Bisantz, dean of Undergraduate Education at the University of Buffalo, said her institution adopted a “Finish in Four” initiative in 2012 that focused on curriculum, advising and physical space.

The initiative also engages students upon entrance or soon after in committing to being part of a Finish in Four cohort. Every major has defined a four-year curricular plan and the university has identified high-demand classes to make sure they are offered and have space needed.

“If you want more kids in the seats, you’ve got to figure out where those seats are. It reveals the need for more of those kinds of infrastructure projects,” said Bisantz.

Teri Longacre, vice provost and dean for Undergraduate Student Success at the University of Houston, changing an institution’s culture requires engagement of everyone on campus. For the University of Houston, which has a high population of transfer students, that also required close partnerships with community colleges to help students seamlessly transfer without accumulating unneeded or untransferable credit hours.

“That’s helped shift our advising culture, along with some infrastructure things that we have done, from being more reactive, transactional to more proactive, student focused, completion focused,” said Longacre.

Carolyn Bassett, associate provost for Student Success at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said her school created a student success unit in 2016 with very specific and intentional goals: Coordinate many of the different efforts across campus; create a cohesive group infrastructure; and figure out where there may be gaps and how to fill those gaps.

“UMass started to make very intentional efforts about messaging clearly, shifting the culture, including everyone in the project,” said Bassett. “the good work has been happening in lots of different ways.”

North Carolina State University has seen a dramatic increase in its four-year graduation rates—from 42% to 63%, said Louis Hunt, senior vice provost of Enrollment Management. That increase was driven by looking at students holistically and providing financial aid that is mainly based on need rather than academics.

“We are trying to remove economic barriers, financial barriers to students,” said Hunt. “When we looked at our data, we found students weren’t leaving because they weren’t academically capable. They were leaving for a lot of other reasons. We had to figure out how we take care of the whole student, how do we identify problems that they might be having?”

Filling in some of those gaps, especially for low-income and first-generation students is what the University of Louisville found was needed, said Michael Mardis, chief student affairs officer and vice provost for Student Affairs. Louisville started providing additional resources, such as the Porter Scholarship Program, which provides aid for incoming African American students. The program is named after Woodford Porter, who was the first African American member of the university’s Board of Trustees. Last year, graduation rates for African American students surpassed that of Caucasian and other students, Hunt said.

“The great quote from Woodford Porter that we share often times across the university is, ‘Education is a great equalizer,’” said Mardis. “We know that in this room.That’s why we’re here, that’s why we’re so committed to being able to give all students that equal opportunity to have that great equalizer to be able to be successful.”

Louisville also focused on transforming from a commuter campus to a residential campus, growing from 3,000 student beds to close to 9,000. Along with that it has implemented living-learning communities, which led to dramatic increases in completion for those residential students.

Signals of Success: Moving the needle on graduation rates

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories about The College Completion Summit held at the University of Utah on Sept. 30-Oct. 1, 2019. The University of Utah and Lumina Foundation hosted the summit, which drew representatives of 22 institutions to the U’s campus to discuss college completion challenges and opportunities. University of Utah President Ruth Watkins and Terri Taylor, strategy director for postsecondary finance, of Lumina Foundation, gave welcoming remarks.

For higher education institutions that have made strides in increasing graduation rates, what are the next steps to keep the momentum going?

That question was center state at The College Completion Summit hosted by the University of Utah and Lumina Foundation on Sept. 30-Oct. 1, 2019. Senior leaders from 22 institutions—all of whom have made notably progress in graduation rates in recent years—attended the event to share best practices and strategies and discussion challenges in keeping the momentum going.

Colleges and universities in the U.S. have a transformative opportunity to help the coming generations of students finish their degrees—an accomplishment that sets them on the path to higher earnings and better physical and mental health over their lifetimes.

“This gathering really transcends most of the usual ways we get together, but I think that this is an even more important tie that binds us together,” University of Utah President Ruth Watkins said in her opening remarks. “You are institutions who have successfully advanced your college completion rates in the past decade. Remarkable change in your institutions in moving up graduation rates. A real success for students.”

The median six-year graduation rate of the institutions represented at the summit—who collectively serve almost 800,000 students—was 51% in 2008; today it is 70%

Watkins shared that the U’s trajectory is right in-line with the group. When the U joined the Pac-12 six years ago, its graduation rate of 55 percent was at the bottom of the institutions in the conference. Today, the U’s graduation rate is 70 percent, closer to the top of Pac-12. The U’s goal is to move that rate to 80 percent.

“I think it has been a very consistent message that we wanted to help our students succeed,” said Watkins. “I think the way you welcome students, greet students, whatever role you’re in, the way you help students see connections, possibilities, and the way they belong makes a difference in student success.”

Watkins said a key to increased success is identifying and simplifying the signals of success within academics and engagement. She also pointed out that institutions that have driven change successfully have had a continuity in leadership. “People have come and stayed with this because this is not a fast enterprise,” Watkins said.

In her welcoming remarks, Terri Taylor, strategy director for postsecondary finance at Lumina Foundation, said the foundation’s goal is to get 60 percent of all American adults to complete some kind of post-secondary education by 2025.

“I think everyone is focused on equity and trying to figure out how to close gaps,” Taylor said.

Lumina is the largest private national foundation solely focused on post-high school education. Earlier this year the U received a $335,000 grant from the foundation to help with its Invest in U program, an income share agreement pilot program designed to help students finish their degrees faster.

Watkins encouraged attendees to share information with each other about how their colleges achieved success, what worked and what they are thinking about trying to increase graduation rates in the future.

“I hope we can talk a little bit about things that are emerging in your work about automating programs and interventions that have students participate, rather than waiting for people to elect them because I think we lose people along the way,” Watkins said.

“I think one of the ways of driving change is to have everybody know that it matters to you, that this is a key focus of the institution,” Watkins added. “Focus significant effort to emphasize the priority and the importance of student success, that students really are at the center of everything we do—and need to be at the center.”

College Completion Summit 2019 – Panel 3

College Completion Summit Audio Recap
University Marketing & Communications
Leveling the Playing Field: Achieving Equity in Completion panel discussion


UMC:  This is an audio recap of the College Completion Summit hosted by the University of Utah and the Lumina Foundation.

On September 30 and October 1, 2019, the College Completion Summit brought together presidents and senior leaders from public universities that have significantly advanced their college completion rates.

Dhanfu Elston, vice president for strategy at College Completion America, delivered a keynote for the panel discussion titled “Leveling the Playing Field: Achieving Equity in Completion.”

Dhanfu Elston:  So, for us, equity has been and continues to be at the forefront of our scale of adoption. We realize that there are some foundational challenges around equity. What we know is that underserved populations of students tend to be overrepresented at the less selective institutions, which oftentimes have lower graduation rates and fewer resources. We know that. We know that too many students of color are frequently stuck in a traditional model of remediation. We know that too many students start out without being on a firm track from how this aligns with their academic and their career goals and their life goals. And then we also know that we have more and more students enrolling part time and, at the same time, we realize that fewer of these part-time students are succeeding.

So, when we talk equity, we’re talking about some of these big issues that are in front of us. And then when you think about the metrics and the evidence, what we also realize is that there is a moral imperative for knowing the data. As we go around the country, having this conversation around college completion, it’s always a great conversation when you talk about national data. Everyone’s like, “Oh, that’s a challenge. We need to work on that.” And then you say, “And here’s your state.” And they all, “Oh, yes, problematic.” And you go, “And here’s your institution.” And they’re like, “Oh, that can’t be right. That data can’t be right.”

And where we are now, talking about equity, is that now we’re even digging deeper beyond the aggregate of our institutions, and we’re saying, “what does our campus look like for Latinx students or for African-American students?” And these are the conversations that we have to have. So, when I say there’s a moral imperative around knowing the data, that’s what I’m talking about.

UMC:  This is David Lassner, president of University of Hawai’i.

David Lassner:  So, let me mention some of our specific equity and gap programs. One is Early College, which has been a remarkable equity program for us. It has helped us close gaps in college attendance and persistence and now graduation rates. We are now driving that into pathways, to drive purpose much farther in. We have incorporated our equity goals into our performance funding, so campuses are rewarded for making progress. Thank you, Tennessee, we’re starting a promise program and trying to drive that into our four-year universities as well. I don’t know if any of you are aware of the SNAP Employment and Training Program, but it’s a way to get federal matching funds for food and other life expenses for students who are career oriented. Kudos to our students who are here. Our student government started a food bank, so we’re helping our students that way. Lots and lots of underrepresented minority grants are out there, especially for STEM fields, and our faculty have become really good at getting those, including for summer bridge programs.

And lastly, let me say, because organizational structure came up, one of the things that we are now looking at UH Manoa is not overlaying student success on top of student affairs and academic affairs, but actually blowing those two up completely and recreating two new approaches, one called student success and one called educational excellence. And everything has to be focused on one or the other, or we don’t know why we have it.

UMC: Here’s Monica Brockmeyer, associate provost for student success at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. She discussed three ways that her university is addressing the disparities of college completion. She describes the second example here.

Monica Brockmeyer:  The second way we did that had moved towards closing our disparities is through a pilot program, our Warrior VIP. It’s an impact program that students are representing from the VIP program here today, and we use that really as a pilot where we synthesized our advising, our strategic care, our analytics, our study skills, tutoring, everything we invested in, we did it in that and delivered that in a very focused way on the needs of our incoming students in that program with an eye towards equity. And the recruited students for that program, at the point of admissions, using data also to suggest that they might benefit from having that extra support. I’m really, really excited to say that our very first pilot year, our students were retained. Our Black students in VIP outperformed our White students across the board on our campus with their retention in the second year. In the first year. I was crying, I ran to the president’s office. You know our president, he’s very serious. But we’ve continued that in our second year to really say that our students are with the VIP program and also in our FYS for our study skills course outperformed the rest of the campus.

UMC: Here’s Timothy Rennick, senior vice president for student success at Georgia State University.

Timothy Rennick: One of our most recent changes was we had the huge problem as recently as three or four years ago, 2015, 19% of our confirmed freshman class never showed up for fall classes—the problem known as summer melt. These are mostly low-income, first-generation students who do everything right leading up to college. They graduate high school, they take the ACT or SAT, they get into college, they confirm they’re going to go, but they never end up attending.

And when we took a hard look at ourselves, it was clear that we were the problem. There were about 14 different bureaucratic steps we were expecting students to complete in between finishing high school and starting college, a time when they are no longer in contact with their high school teachers and counselors and not yet on our campus. And so what we did in the summer of 2006 is became one of the first schools in the country to pioneer an AI-enhanced chat bot to help students through that summer period. The chat bot is an automatic texting platform we built with a knowledge base of over 2,000 answers to commonly asked questions by our incoming students.

The reason I’m mentioning all of this as part of an equity panel is, in the first three months we had that chat bot operating, between June and August of 2016, we had over 200,000 questions answered. We ran a random control trial with a research out of the University of Pittsburgh, and what she found is not only did all students benefit from this particular intervention, but disproportionately, the students who benefited were our Pell students, were our first-generation students, were our underserved students, the students who, in the past, would have gotten tripped up by all that bureaucracy during the summer.

UMC: This is Nikos Varelas, vice provost for undergraduate affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Nikos Varelas:  We have created a leadership network. We have identified where custom predictive analytics, students who need the extra help in order to be retained to the second year. And we added coaching, freshman coaching. We give them $200 a semester for one year only. We connect them with career-services coaches. We provide work on campus and also workshops in order to strengthen practice. That program, for two years in a row, has increased retention for these students 20 percentage points.

We tried to increase the number of students who graduate in four years and, as a matter of fact, in the last three, four years, we increased the four-year graduation rate by 7 percentage points. And we’re breaking the records every year. Even this year, broke the record from last year.

When students finish their first year but they are not at the sophomore status and they are assigned by six-credit hours or less, so what we do is we offer them over the summer sessions where they take two courses, they pay one and we pay the other. So that way they can speed up their degree process.

UMC: Here’s keynote speaker Dhanfu Elston, vice president for strategy at College Completion America, with the main takeaways from the hour-long discussion.

Dhanfu Elston: I think that there are so many opportunities in this work. You know, higher education, as one of my colleagues on the panel mentioned—there are things in society that we didn’t cause, but higher education can be a solution to many of those issues. And so, that’s exciting, you know what I’m saying, I think that’s what drives many of us, and that’s what makes sure that we’re committed to the work.

First of all, we had an amazing panel of individuals. And what I love about sitting around these key players in higher education is that there’s nothing better than a story that this work can be done. So, when we’re talking about closing opportunity gaps and equity in higher education, there’s a reality that a lot of people have realized that this is urgent.

This is something that institutions have to do and it’s not just about my campus and how it’s going impact us and our standings and our rankings, this is a moral imperative for our country and we have to have more minoritized populations. Whether that be Pell-eligible students or whether it be rural students. We know that race and ethnicity constantly overlap in those issues. And so talking through the realities that are in front of us. And the fact that people are doing it. That there are campuses that are doing it well. So, when people say it’s hard, well of course it’s hard. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a thing. But to recognize there are institutions that are recognizing that level of commitment, that’s just really exciting.

I love it and I shout it from the rooftops when we hear these stories of institutions doing well and there’s frustration that there are too many students still not doing well and not being served as well as they can be. So, we’ve got work to do. We’ve got work to do. These kinds of conversations where you have a network and community of individuals all pulling in the same direction, has to be part of that conversation because we have too many institutions that don’t get a chance to learn and develop and grow in this process. It’s not where we want it to be, but the national agenda, and the national narrative is taking place. We’re involving not just institutions, but legislators and governor’s offices and the general public, families and cities in this conversation around the importance of college completion knowing that that is going to have hug implications for areas that serve high populations of students of color.

UMC: Thank you for listening. Find the audio recap of the next panel discussion, “Data and Technology Contributions to Completion,” and other summit proceedings at