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Guidance Toward Graduation

Last month’s release of the Education Reform Now CT report, Less for More: Low Rates of Completion and High Costs at Connecticut's Four-Year Colleges, raised important questions about how well Connecticut’s bachelor-degree-granting institutions serve their students, especially their vulnerable student populations. These findings point to a major underlying problem—a lack of college preparedness. Too many graduates of Connecticut’s K-12 public schools lack the skills to succeed in programs of higher education. Nevertheless, Connecticut’s four-year institutions still can and should do more to improve their completion rates by counseling and supporting students throughout their academic careers.

As the ERN CT report identifies, if Connecticut colleges and policymakers want to offer students opportunities where they can truly succeed, we need to take clear and deliberate actions based upon best practices that have helped students to attain their degrees after enrollment in college. This blog highlights some such practices from schools in states like Georgia, Colorado, and Florida — exploring GPS Advising systems, cultural awareness initiatives, guided pathways, and course articulation.

GPS Advising

Georgia State University has received national recognition for its successful efforts to eliminate racial, ethnic, and income-based achievement gaps. From 2003-2015, its graduation rate for African American students rose from 29% to 57%, and for Hispanic students, 22%-54%. That was not an accident, but the result of targeted, intentional reforms.

Dean of Students Darryl B. Holloman has noted that Black college students can feel isolated and are reluctant to seek help because they feel they have more to prove. As a result of this insight, Georgia State launched a proactive adviser outreach program to show students that they were supported and that the school was invested in their individual successes.

Amidst an intentional and systematic strategy for turning around the school’s outcomes, Georgia State points to “GPS Advising” in particular for their positive student outcomes. GPS Advising uses a computer algorithm with predictive analytics to monitor the daily performance of over 30,000 students. When “GPS Advising” identifies at-risk behaviors, an adviser will reach out to the student to help course correct. In 2014-15 alone, the GPS Advising system resulted in over 43,000 meetings between students and advisers. It’s a tool that prompts in-person interventions from an adviser in real-time.

Potential Legislative Action

  • Fund GPS Advising initiative at the CSCU - both advisers and software.

Cultural Awareness and Diversity

For students who have struggled to overcome racial and cultural disadvantages, it can be meaningful to know the professional staff of their college understand their backgrounds and share their experiences. For instance, some schools deliberately employ staff members who are both people of color and first generation college students.

But at Education Reform Now’s Philos 2018 conference, Professor Ted Thornhill from Florida Gulf Coast University remarked that building an “anti-racist campus” is about more than addressing explicit racism by diversifying the student and staff populations; it’s also about sincerely acknowledging the history of racism and the ongoing systemic struggle that many people of color have to contend with throughout their lives.

Institutional biases (whether covert, overt, or wholly unintentional) have the potential to make the higher education experience more burdensome and stressful for students of color. Beyond hiring more diverse staff, higher education institutions seeking to be more supportive and welcoming may consider: (1) training staff about systemic racism, discrimination, and bias; (2) enforcing strict policies on anti-discrimination; and (3) cultivating an institution-wide culture that internalizes the inherent value of diversity on campus.

Potential Legislative Action:

  • Fund cultural awareness and diversity training at all public colleges and universities.

  • Require that all public colleges and universities provide training to staff and faculty.

Guided Pathways

Another promising strategy for improving college graduation rates, especially among vulnerable student populations, is to develop Guided Pathways — a framework that has become popular among community colleges for mapping out clear, coherent routes that students can follow to achieve their goals (credentials, jobs, further education, etc).

The Guided Pathways model supports the idea that community colleges can improve graduation rates and narrow completion gaps by mapping out their programmatic offerings. This helps students visualize the courses necessary to complete an area of study, to transfer to a four-year school, or to earn a credential.

Then, advisers help students make academic plans based on their individual goals. Students who are undecided begin to focus on an end-goal by beginning with meta-majors (courses that are clustered in an area of interest); this allows students to begin with core introductory courses in their first year, and to then customize their full educational plans with an adviser. If students start to veer off track from their plans, or if they face academic difficulties, their advisers know quickly that it’s time to intervene.

Connecticut’s community colleges have begun to introduce Guided Pathways in a narrow fashion. More and broader pathways need to be created, and more students need to be engaged on pathways. Furthermore, four year colleges should consider adopting the Guided Pathways model.

Potential Legislative Action:

  • Fund faculty efforts to create guided pathways at community and four-year colleges with a deadline to deliver and offer them to students.

Coursework Transferability

Students sometimes do not graduate because the college they attend simply doesn’t offer the precise coursework they need in the right sequence or time frame. Here in Connecticut, we need to prevent logistical barriers like these.

The Colorado community colleges and universities have Statewide Transfer Articulation Agreements, which are negotiated pathways that allow students to graduate with an Associate of Arts or an Associate of Science degree, provided they complete 60 credits. These credits are also transferable toward the 120 credits needed in bachelor's programs. For each credential, the precise agreements and participating schools are explicitly mapped out on the website for the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

Connecticut can similarly address students’ coursework and timeline limitations by mapping out or automatically transferring credits between all community colleges, CT state universities and UConn, and then, clearly identifying these transferable courses in their course catalogues.

Potential Legislative Action:

  • Require a certain number of courses designated as transferable by a certain date, and if not, impose a funding penalty.

The Bottom Line

We all share in the urgency to graduate more college students ready to join the workforce and have successful careers. There are plenty of tried and true strategies to improve students’ experiences in Connecticut colleges and universities. Advocates and policymakers must collaborate today (and in the coming 2020 legislative session) to advance a strategy of best practices from other states that will benefit the next freshmen class, the graduating class of 2024.


GPS Advising systems

Cultural Awareness and Diversity

Guided Pathways

Coursework Transferability

  • Colorado Department of Higher Education (nd). Transfer Degrees. Retrieved December 2019.


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