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Students walk through the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on August 18, 2020 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The UNC system is experimenting with projects like personalized student advising and bridge programs to help students graduate and do so on time. (Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images)

Inside UNC’s Innovative Approach to Improving Student Graduation Rates

As part of the UNC Success Lab, six institutions are experimenting with projects like personalized student advising and bridge programs to help students graduate and do so on time.

After graduating high school, Reagan Cooper wasn’t sure if she’d be able to handle college. The now 20-year-old from Rocky Mount, N. C. said she knew she was smart enough to adjust academically, but she worried about the social and time management skills she’d need to make it through a four-year program. She’d be the first person in her family to go straight from high school to college, and she considered joining the military instead.

So when she nervously enrolled in North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and they approached her about attending the Aggie Success Academy, a summer bridge program before her freshman year, she jumped at the opportunity. Cooper said the almost six weeks she spent on campus in 2019 with 25 other students were pivotal to starting her off on the right path in college. She met good friends, got comfortable with the campus, went on trips to museums and an amusement park, and completed courses to help towards graduation.

So far, it’s been the best part of college,” said Cooper, who will be a junior in the fall.

A&T’s Aggie Success Academy, in which Cooper was an inaugural participant, is one of six current, experimental projects run by the University of North Carolina System’s Student Success Innovation Lab. The lab, which is funded by foundations including Arnold Ventures, aims to develop and test new strategies for improving student success through efforts like helping them adjust to college life, assisting them in finding majors and pathways to careers, and supporting students who struggle financially.

Andrew Kelly, senior vice president for strategy and policy at the University of North Carolina System Office, said the goal of the Success Lab is to strategically improve the rate at which students graduate and do so on time. Each participating institution has its own project trying to accomplish that goal through innovations in one of three areas: teaching and learning, student services like advising and student support, and financial aid. Kelly said this model allowed each institution to decide what their students most needed.

Rather than assuming that we, at the system office, knew the best ideas and how best to move the needle on student retention and graduation, we figured that we would ask our institutions through a competitive process to come to us with the best ideas that they had,” he said.

The institutions proposed unique projects, and the best ideas were awarded grants in 2019. Most projects will be collecting data through this year, although the coronavirus pandemic altered the timeline of the programs that require in-person interaction.

A hallmark of the program is rigorous evaluation,” Kelly said, explaining that the Success Lab also selected research affiliates from faculty across the UNC system and partnered them with the project teams to assist in evaluating the success from the beginning of the process. The Success Lab project is poised to be exceptionally relevant: This kind of experimentation and measurement of student success is exactly what $62 billion is allocated to in President Biden’s proposed American Families Plan.


Amount allocated in President Biden’s proposed American Families Plan to evidence-based student success practices

By experimenting with different projects, Kelly said he hopes to identify which have the biggest impact and are the most cost effective, and then eventually replicate them in other UNC institutions where they could benefit students. 

Chase Sackett, manager of higher education at Arnold Ventures, said that’s also his team’s goal in working with UNC on this initiative. 

To help more students finish college, we need to learn which strategies work best across a range of contexts,” he said. The UNC system’s transformational effort to assess and then scale the most promising innovations, in partnership with practitioners and researchers, is a national model.”

Although the projects are ongoing and any data collected is preliminary, Kelly and the project leads said they are excited about the projects and already see them having positive impacts on students’ experiences.

Aggie Success Academy 

Faculty at A&T, a historically Black university in Greensboro, proposed a summer bridge program for the first time in 2019 in order to help acclimate to college life in-state students in the murky middle” — those who are not high achievers and who are often overlooked by support systems on campus. 

The desire was to make sure the students have a sense of belonging and to earn general educational credits so that at the end of their freshman year, they would have acquired more credits than their counterparts,” said Regina Williams, assistant provost of student success and academic support at A&T. If they felt more committed and allegiant to the institution and built that up before they got started, it would help them to want to stay and we’d retain them.”

In order to measure success, researchers looked at whether the participants had the same or higher GPAs than similar students who did not participate in the program. They also looked at their retention rates, which ended up being slightly better than the rate for the students who did not participate, Williams said. 

Cooper said she ended her freshman year with a 3.9 GPA, thanks in part to the Aggie Success Academy.

The program was cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic, but there are plans for a hybrid in-person and online version to happen this summer for the second installment. Williams said she’s hopeful that the second cohort of students, which will likely be larger than the first, finds similar success, even if they can’t spend as much time together on campus.

Academic Case Managers

At UNC Asheville, a public liberal arts institution, a different project grew out of the realization that although class sizes are small, students rarely have professional advisors supporting them through their college experience. 

Asheville really wanted to think through how it could experiment with having more individuals who function as student advisors and counselors,” Kelly said. 

The Success Lab is funding academic case managers, a non-faculty person who is assigned a caseload of students and checks in with them frequently and helps them get adjusted to campus. Deaver Traywick, the project lead who wrote the proposal, said that like A&T’s project, his goal was to address students in the murky middle.” 

Traywick and his team selected 100 students whose high school GPA and test scores were below the mean, but who weren’t already being supported by other campus programs. Those students were then paired with an academic case manager, who developed a closer relationship with them than a typical faculty advisor. For the first year, the case manager was a trained counselor who was able to speak with students about personal and financial issues in addition to academics. 

What we didn’t want to do was just more once a year meetings to talk about what courses you’re going to take,” Traywick said. “[The case manager] was doing much more intensive work trying to connect students who were struggling financially, who struggled with domestic violence, food insecurity — all those things that impact students long before they’re trying to decide what courses to take.”

Traywick described the case manager as someone who can have conversations with students before they need someone, rather than after something has gone wrong.

Researchers are measuring the case manager’s impact on student retention, students’ overall cumulative GPA, and their credit hours earned during the time they worked with the case manager. 

The hypothesis is that that kind of individualized, consistent, sustained attention would result in student success among one or more of those measures,” Traywick said.

Kelly said that Traywick’s hypothesis did prove correct during the first semester of the project. 

We found that even just on the immediate outcome of fall to spring retention, there was a significant positive impact,” he said. That positive impact was present, though a little more muted, for that same cohort of students into the fall.” 

During COVID, it became harder for the case manager to maintain a close relationship with students, Traywick said. The results for the spring semester were not as positive, but he’s hopeful that things will improve again as students return to in-person learning. 

Disrupting the Churn’

Typically at UNC Greensboro, student advising targets students early in their college career, Kelly said. But the project leads noticed that students often flounder in the middle of their college experience when it comes time to figure out their major or career path. 

Those students — some of them swirl because they haven’t necessarily chosen the best major for them or for their skillset,” Kelly said. You get a lot of churning where they’re taking a bunch of credits, but those credits may not be accruing to the bottom line.” 

Samantha Raynor, principal investigator for UNC Greensboro’s project, said they noticed that many students were changing majors late into their college experience, and decided to address their needs through advising.

Their project identifies students navigating major changes earlier in their academic careers and pairs them with advisors to help them onto a path to timely graduation. Many of the students are first generation college students or others who aren’t exposed to a wide breadth of career options, so they come to us a bit uninformed about the possibilities, and they’re choosing majors based on careers that they’ve seen or interacted with through media or in their communities, but those are pretty limited,” Raynor said.

To help more students finish college, we need to learn which strategies work best across a range of contexts. The UNC system’s transformational effort to assess and then scale the most promising innovations, in partnership with practitioners and researchers, is a national model.
Chase Sackett Arnold Ventures higher education manager

Daakwam Abernathy, a 21-year-old senior studying international and global studies, worked with an advisor through the project this year. He said the advisor helped him plan how to pursue a job opportunity outside Greensboro, and helped him set up online classes so he could still complete his degree.

He thought outside the box,” Abernathy said about his advisor. He supported me with everything that I needed and made a way for me to take this opportunity.”

Abernathy said the Success Lab advisor worked with him in a more personal manner than a typical advisor.

I think the program allowed advisors to focus on students,” he said. Advisors that aren’t in the program have so many students that they go right over what the student might need and they don’t go in-depth with them…. These advisors actually sat down to talk with you. It wasn’t just about class, it wasn’t just about student life, but it was: How’s life going? Is there anything that you need to talk about? Do you need help with something?’ They actually cared to see what was in your day-to-day life, rather than just classes and school.”

The project is delayed because of COVID, but Kelly said he’s optimistic they’ll get results and learn a lot about an area that we don’t know a lot about as a community of practitioners and researchers in higher ed.”

Anecdotally, Raynor said she has heard that the students and advisors have really enjoyed working together. Both sides appreciate the frequency with which they can meet to discuss career planning, graduate school, and other opportunities. 

These are conversations that wouldn’t have otherwise happened without this study,” Raynor said, adding that without the support of the Success Lab, the study couldn’t have happened at this scale or this rigor.”

The Success Lab is just one part of a long-term strategy to improve on-time graduation rates in higher education, Kelly said. He said he hopes that at the end of the project period, other institutions will consider adopting the same research models UNC used in order to help the most students possible.

Higher education has a tremendous opportunity to leverage two of its best assets more effectively: the professionals who work on student success issues and the researchers that have expertise in program evaluation,” he said. They really are two assets that are present on most campuses. What we’ve done is try to link them up.”

The model that we’ve built is one that is readily exportable to other systems and other institutions,” he added. I would hope that others would learn from this, and we’re happy to talk to anyone who wants to set up something similar.”

Recent developments in federal policy could make the Success Lab’s lessons even more timely. President Biden’s proposal to invest $62 billion in evidence-based student success practices through the American Families Plan would be transformative,” Sackett said, emphasizing the imperative that these programs have proven success in order to receive funding. And the Success Lab can help lead the way to make sure those dollars help students as much as possible.”