Innovative program puts students back on track to earn FSU degree

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida State University students are graduating in four years at a record levels, but some students encounter unexpected challenges that derail their plans to earn a degree.

From limited finances to mental or physical health problems to natural disasters, there’s a wide variety of reasons why students leave college without finishing.

“Almost everybody knows someone who didn’t finish college,” said Assistant Provost Joe O’Shea. “Unfortunately, it’s all too common. There are more than 30 million Americans who have some college but no degree. We’ve got to do more to help those students.”

That’s where the FSU Graduation Planning and Strategies Office (GPS) comes in. Established in 2017, GPS has helped 635 students re-enroll and graduate after leaving the university without completing their degree.

“Higher education is a major expense for students and their families and the state of Florida,” O’Shea said. “Unfortunately, many students don’t fully realize their investment because they don’t finish their degree. The completion campaign has been able to help hundreds of students complete their degree, and therefore, also help the state realize the investment it has made in the students.”

Realizing the state’s investment is the reason that the GPS office’s completion campaign earned one of the top 2019 Florida TaxWatch Productivity Awards. The awards program recognizes and rewards state employees and workgroups who find ways to improve services, increase efficiencies and save Florida taxpayers millions of dollars each year.

At the time of its award application, the GPS office documented helping 344 students graduate — a projected cost savings of $66 million for students and taxpayers.

FSU’s graduation completion campaign started as a pilot project coordinated by Alice Wright, director of retention in Undergraduate Studies. Soon, the project became a principle initiative within GPS, focusing on students who have earned 100-plus credit hours and were no longer enrolling in classes.

“In most cases, students who drop out are just a few courses away from completing their degree — some only a semester out from finishing,” said Jill Flees, director of the Graduation Planning and Strategies Office.

Each semester, Graduation Specialist Lynn Helton pulls a report of students who fit these criteria. Then, Helton does her research. She contacts college and department advisers to identify an individual’s barriers to completion, and then she personally calls the student.

“Sometimes it takes students some time to call us back,” Flees said. “Some aren’t automatically ready to have that conversation about re-entry, so it may be three months, six months, nine months.”

When they are ready, Helton is there to listen and put them back on a path to graduation.

“Maybe there was some shame initially in what caused them to stop, but having that person on the other end of the phone who wants to listen to their story and talk about next steps is important,” Flees said. “Lynn really becomes their go-to person and their conduit back to the university.”

When Helton contacts a student, she provides them with the most efficient and cost-effective degree completion recommendation.

“A lot of them want to come back but don’t know how they would be able to do that based on their circumstances,” Helton said.

Helton brainstorms alternate ways for them to finish their degree, whether it be online or at an institution closer to where they reside now or taking a CLEP exam.

“This team is so creative and persistent in helping students see that there is a path forward,” O’Shea said.

O’Shea pointed out the importance of having a trusted professional, like Helton, in the outreach role, who can help a student navigate the complexities of higher education.

Kristabel Moore’s case was a prime example. Heading into her final semester last December, she was missing a language requirement. Already strapped for time with a 15-hour credit load and two jobs, Moore wasn’t able to fit in another class. She had arranged to take a CLEP exam to fulfill the requirement the week before graduation, but a tonsillectomy and car accident ruined that plan.

Helton reached out to Moore with a strategy to fix her situation.

“If I was confused about anything, she called me or emailed me within an hour and answered my questions,” Moore said.

Moore, who now works for the Florida Division of Emergency Management, officially received her degree in environmental science and religion this summer, and she is relieved and grateful for Helton’s assistance.

“I feel at peace now,” Moore said. “It was a very difficult process just finishing that one class.”

Earning a degree has lifelong implications for students like Moore. The Social Security Administration estimates about $430,000 more in lifetime earnings for a person with a college degree compared to a person who had some college but left without a degree.

“What’s special about higher education is that it pays dividends throughout your life,” O’Shea said. “If you have a college degree, you’re going to be making hundreds of thousands of dollars more during your lifetime than if you didn’t have a college degree.”

Other universities are looking to FSU as a model for this innovative way of supporting students facing hurdles to completing their degree. In fact, a national research organization has asked Florida State administrators for guidance in best practices in this area so other institutions around the country can replicate FSU’s success.

While policies and practices can be emulated, it’s FSU’s administrators and staff members who have really made a difference in this project’s success.

“This project came about from people who truly care,” Helton said. “I think that’s the holistic approach that FSU takes, and it’s rewarding to be part of such an impactful project.”

For more information on the Graduation and Planning Strategies Office, visit https://gps.fsu.edu/.