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BOCA RATON, Fla. — With no one to support him after leaving foster care when he turned 18, Hasan Dickinson held down two jobs during his first semester at a large state university, running for the bus to work as soon as class was over.

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This story also appeared in NBC News

Those outside time commitments took such a toll on his grades that he was stripped of his financial aid, blocked from registering for any more classes and he risked being kicked out of the dorm that was his only place to live.

Seeking help, Dickinson got lost in the kind of bureaucratic vortex that so often thwarts the aspirations of undergraduates. Sent from one office to another, he was close to giving up — until he found himself referred to someone whose title was “retention specialist.”

“I never heard of that,” said Dickinson. “Literally her job is to keep you in school.”

Hasan Dickinson nearly dropped out of Florida Atlantic University when he lost his financial aid. A “retention specialist” helped keep him enrolled.

Together they found grant and scholarship money to cover enough of his debt and additional expenses that he could quit one of his jobs, keep his housing and sign up for the next semester. Dickinson stayed.

It’s a small but noteworthy example of a new emphasis at colleges and universities on plugging the steady drip of dropouts who end up with little to show for their time and tuition, wasting taxpayer money that subsidizes public universities and leaving employers without enough of the graduates they need to fill jobs.

“Until we had a deep look at ourselves, we didn’t realize that we were selling them [students] short,” said James Capp, assistant provost for academic operations and planning at Florida Atlantic University, which Dickinson attends and where, as recently as 2014, fewer than one in five students was managing to graduate within four years.

The Florida Atlantic University campus. A concerted campaign to improve success rates has more than doubled the proportion of students who graduate within four years. Credit: Saul Martinez for The Hechinger Report

A concerted campuswide campaign that includes interventions like the one that rescued Dickinson has since more than doubled that proportion, to nearly half in 2020, the last year for which the figure is available. The share of students who drop out between their first and second years has fallen from 25 percent to 18 percent.

Efforts like this represent a change from a time when students were left to sink or swim.

“It’s about a shift in the culture,” Capp said.

Related: More students are dropping out of college during Covid — and it could get worse

It’s also about the practical need to keep campuses afloat as overall enrollment plummets — down by nearly a million since the start of the pandemic and by nearly three million in the last 10 years. As demographic trends, a strong job market and skepticism about the need for a degree cut into the supply of new students, universities and colleges are working harder to prevent existing ones from falling through the cracks.

When lots of 18-year-olds were pouring out of high schools, “it was easy to wait on the applications to come in,” said FAU President John Kelly, in his office overlooking the campus ornamented with palm trees. “That’s not the case anymore.”

Another reason it’s in public universities’ self-interest to deal with dropouts now: State budget allocations are increasingly tied to how many students graduate. Its poor showing in that category led the state to withhold $7 million from FAU, administrators calculate, under a performance funding formula in which it was second to last among Florida’s 12 public universities.

As provost, Bret Danilowicz oversees efforts to raise the once very low success rates at Florida Atlantic University. “We’re changing it to, ‘It’s the institution’s fault, not the student’s’ ” if a student doesn’t graduate on time. Credit: Saul Martinez for The Hechinger Report

“When a state puts money at risk for you,” said FAU’s provost, Bret Danilowicz, “that is certainly a motivation” to change things.

With nearly half of its more than 25,000 students Black or Hispanic, and about half from families with low incomes, FAU “had this view of ourself as an institution of access,” Capp said. But “one of the things we found when we started to look at the data was that what we were providing access to was debt. They were just leaving higher education with debt and nothing to show for it.”

Administrators also quickly realized that pointless rules were taking an unrecognized toll on students, while seemingly small changes could result in big improvements. “We’re changing it to, ‘It’s the institution’s fault, not the student’s’ ” if a student doesn’t stick around or graduate on time, Danilowicz said.

Problems with low success rates are widespread in American higher education. At public universities in general, only about 40 percent of students graduate within four years, the most recent federal figures show; at all universities and colleges, just 45 percent.

Related: Largely unseen and unsupported, huge numbers of student fathers are quitting college

More than a quarter of students dropped out between their first and second years in college in 2020, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center — the highest level in nearly a decade. At community colleges, nearly half the students quit after their first year.

“That doesn’t make sense, from a moral perspective, an economic perspective — from any perspective,” said Susan Mayer, chief learning officer at Achieving the Dream, which works with more than 300 community colleges to improve completion.

FAU’s attempts to increase the proportion of its students who stay in college and finish on time began with what seems the simplest change of all: convincing them they could.

“The biggest thing was just for the institution to set clear expectations for students that they need to graduate within four years,” Capp said. “It wasn’t talked about before, so there wasn’t an explicit goal. Now, every time the president talks to students, he says, ‘You’re going to graduate in four years.’ ”

Even that got pushback from some faculty and staff. “There was resistance to it,” Capp said. “People thought students should take as long as they take.” But every semester that undergraduates earned fewer than 15 credits, they were falling behind.

Built on a onetime military airfield, part of which is still a general aviation airport next door, Florida Atlantic University has created what it calls a “flight plan” to a degree for each incoming freshman. Credit: Saul Martinez for The Hechinger Report

So the university — built on a former military airfield, part of which is still a general aviation airport next door to the campus — created what it calls a “flight plan” for each incoming freshman, plotting his or her semester-by-semester route to a degree.

This was complicated by the fact that academic departments had different advising software, and students’ records weren’t necessarily following them when they moved from one adviser to another. So the university standardized those systems, and every student was assigned a personal “success network,” with an academic adviser, career coach and financial aid counselor for his or her entire time in college.

FAU also looked for other incentives to keep students from quitting. It tied financial aid to progress by creating scholarships that increase the longer recipients stay in school. Recognizing that students who work on campus are more likely to persist than those who work off campus, it nearly doubled the number of on-campus student jobs.

Like many other higher education institutions, FAU is increasingly using data to see where students lose their way and how to get them back on track. In its first few years of doing this, it found that offering an academic success “conference” called “How to FAU” saved 79 from dropping out compared to the number likely to have quit in the past; prodding them into extracurricular activities kept 157 enrolled who would otherwise have left; and getting them to take advantage of physical and mental health care prevented 177 from giving up.

Related: Another million adults ‘have stepped off the path to the middle class’

Some interventions seem small, but they can have a big impact. Students who are referred from one office to another get a staff person’s name and email address. “All these interactions that were nothing but transactional, we’ve made them personal,” said Kelly.

“We took a series of anonymous offices, and now there’s a person’s name there: ‘This is your financial aid officer,’ ” Danilowicz, the provost, said. “Now, in a big university, they’ve got people they can talk to.”

Regina Francis hadn’t planned to come to FAU — until she was impressed with all the personal attention she received from a financial aid officer who helped her with her paperwork. “I probably called once a day,” said Francis, now a junior majoring in political science and sociology who plans to go to law school.

Florida Atlantic University freshman Huguette St Hubert found it “overwhelming” to be the first in her family to go to college. But under a new initiative to improve success rates, “They make sure you’re being taken care of.” Credit: Saul Martinez for The Hechinger Report

Freshman Huguette St Hubert is the first in her family to go to college, with a goal of becoming a physician’s assistant. The admissions process and beginning school “was overwhelming, I’ll be honest,” she said. But “we have advocates. We have people who direct us to financial aid, to the career center. We really get that support system early on and know where to go. They make sure you’re being taken care of.”

Administrators found lots of red tape that was causing more trouble than it was worth. There were endless “administrative holds” that blocked progress — for example, stopping students from registering for courses if they fell behind by even a negligible amount on their payments to the university. “A hold would be placed, and then another hold,” Capp said.

Those kinds of obstacles get in the way of students everywhere, said Yolanda Watson Spiva, president of the advocacy organization Complete College America. “There are all of these long-held practices,” Watson Spiva said. For example, “ ‘If you lose a key we charge you penalties plus interest and you can’t get your transcript.’ A lot of institutions are realizing these policies are dumb.”

Related: A surprising reason keeping students from finishing college: A lack of transportation

They’re beginning to change.

“For a long time, unfortunately, the way of thinking was that we have to fix students, and now we’ve been much more focused on how do we change our institutions,” Mayer said.

Dickinson, who hopes to someday work as an advocate for foster kids like him, still wonders why navigating college has to be so hard.

“At times it feels hopeless. I’m not going to lie,” he said. “It’s not the people, it’s the system. They’re good people. There’s just not enough attention to this as an issue.”

He added: “Something that’s so important in society, it should be easier. There shouldn’t be all these hurdles just to get an education.”

This story about reducing the number of college dropouts was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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