Board of Regents receives $2m grant to continue increasing grad rates

Tristan Denley presenting to a group about analytics

The Tennessee Board of Regents is investing a $2 million grant it recently received from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation into efforts to increase graduation rates, especially among low-income and first-generation students at colleges and universities across the state.

Driven by Governor Haslam’s Drive to 55 goal to increase the percentage of Tennesseans with a college credential by 2025, the grant encourages effective student success strategies developed at the TBR system level be shared among its schools statewide.

TBR is the governing system for the 46 public colleges and universities in Tennessee that are not UT institutions, enrolling almost 200,000 students. This structure provides the distinct advantage of integrating efforts across different types of post-secondary schools, including colleges of applied technology, community colleges, and universities. But getting them all to adapt to changes quickly isn’t easy.

“It’s one thing to create these programs that we know are effective at the system level, but it can be a challenge to incorporate them at the institution level, where every college or university is different, every student body is unique, and challenges and obstacles can vary,” said TBR Chancellor John Morgan.

“This grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation allows us to continue finding ways to use the power of the system to partner with and enable our institutions to do the work of change. The funding supports bringing campus leaders, faculty and staff together to share lessons learned, build system-wide capacity, and grow momentum for a common purpose. Having available resources to conduct these gatherings means we can focus on the work to be done.”

That includes programs like using technology and computer analytics to identify students who are at risk of dropping out and providing intense advising and support to keep them enrolled and on track to finish their degree or diploma. Another strategy helps students define their college goals from the start of their college experience by eliminating “undecided” as an option.

“We looked at the data and discovered that more than half of the students who came into our schools with an ‘undecided’ major ended up dropping out before they ever chose any program,” said Tristan Denley, TBR’s vice chancellor for Academic Affairs. “We created areas of academic focus, to help students get started on a path. So a student who might have otherwise been undecided, may now instead choose from general groups of majors like health professions, business, education or STEM from which they can gradually narrow their focus. The goal is to keep more students enrolled and engaged, while ensuring that they avoid taking courses that don’t apply to what they need to graduate.”

Another strategy that has shown success in a pilot study is being implemented at all 13 of the state’s community colleges this semester. The colleges eliminated traditional stand alone remedial classes and instead now place students directly into for-credit college courses with required learning support provided through extra tutoring or lab work. While previously only 12 percent of students who had to take a remedial math class ever completed the credit-earning course, under the new model, more than 62 percent passed.

Statistics show efforts like these and a number of other initiatives at TBR are paying off. The number of degrees and other credentials awarded by TBR institutions has surpassed strategic goals each of the past several years as the Drive to 55 has grown and success strategies are shared and put in place.  Last year TBR awarded almost 34,000 diplomas, degrees and certificates, on track toward its goal of awarding 43,202 in 2025.

“The way to reach our goals is to take these innovative ideas and implement them in ways we know can help more of our students be successful,” said Denley. He and other TBR leaders are already planning gatherings like the completion academies that bring teams of faculty and staff together from the institutions to focus on specific action plans to increase student success.

“That happens by engaging at the faculty level in a way we haven’t been able to do in the past. This grant will help us create programs to do just that, and we’re grateful for it.”

The College System of Tennessee is the state’s largest public higher education system, with 13 community colleges, 27 colleges of applied technology and the online TN eCampus serving approximately 140,000 students. The system is governed by the Tennessee Board of Regents.