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Restructuring Degree Roadmaps to Improve Timely Graduation in Higher Education

Xuemei (Sherry) Su is Professor of Management and HRM.

With the aspiration of transforming American higher education and economy, President Obama introduced the American Graduation Initiative in summer 2009 which calls for five million additional graduates by 2020 in order that the United States will have the highest graduation rate among nations in the world. According to a study by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), California will have a shortage of 1.1 million college graduates to meet its economic needs by 2030. The projected workforce shortage is expected to have an adverse impact on California’s future economic development. In the last decade, considerable institutional resources were spent on boosting the graduation rate and some higher education institutions have even implemented intrusive advising programs to achieve this goal. Nonetheless, the national data paints a grim picture of the four-year graduation rate. The U.S. National Center for Education Statistics reports that the four-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time undergraduate students seeking a baccalaureate degree at four-year degree-granting institutions in the 2009 starting cohort was 34% at public institutions and 53% at nonprofit private institutions. The four-year graduation rate at the national level has remained relatively stagnant all the way back to the 2000 starting cohort. Most strikingly, California State University’s (CSU) four-year graduation rate is one of the lowest in the nation, an alarming 19%.

Timely graduation requires a student to successfully enroll in and complete a set of required and elective courses, the relationship of which are bound by the courses’ prerequisite requirements. However, due to the fact that class capacity is oftentimes limited and wrongly timed, many students find it challenging to get the classes they need. When we closely examine the enrollment in a full class with a waiting list, we find that some students on the waiting list need that class badly/immediately for graduation on time, while other students who are already enrolled, although also need the class, do not need the class immediately. They can actually wait one, even two or three semesters without delaying their degree.

After some investigation, we find three culprits for this phenomenon: (1) Students don’t have a clear understanding of the path to degree and choose classes that are easy, fit their schedule, have a nice instructor, or simply because their friends take it. This causes students to end up in a class they don’t actually need or don’t need immediately, while missing the best window to take classes that are critical to their degree progress. (2) On the side of administration, the decision on the number of sessions/seats offering is based on the seat and session offering of the previous semester and/or one year ago, without paying much attention to admission growth, even less to the shifting of admission changes across different majors in a college. This structural changes in demand, if ignored, can throw capacity planning off much more than the demand change at the aggregate level. The reason is that aggregate level demand change is more incremental and controllable. (3) The current registration priority rule is not effective at differentiating the needs as “no need”, “need” and “immediate need”.

The starting point of solving these problems is to come up with a well-structured degree roadmap for every major and specifies the right courses to take by semester. The degree roadmap will better guide students’ course selection and thus increase their chance of earning their degrees within the four-year time window. In our research, we propose a probabilistic model-based method to improve degree roadmap. Given a particular curricular structure, our study applies line-balancing technique to find the optimized course sequence that can improve the timely graduation rate, while also taking into consideration of the robustness of the roadmap in terms of less susceptibility to disruptions. The optimized degree roadmap points out a clearly charted course of actions for students. Through intrusive advising based upon the optimized degree roadmap, the institution can effectively guide the timing of students’ demand for specific course seats. The institution can also better forecast time-phased demand and better plan structural capacity, making seats available for the right students at the right time. While long-term capacity issue can only be solved by faculty hires and facility addition, an optimized degree roadmap design directly guides structural demand and facilitates structural capacity planning without adding additional cost.  

Another major contribution of our research is to quantitatively assess timely graduation rate using probabilistic model and Monte Carlo simulation. Given a degree roadmap, the estimated probability of successful course enrollment, and the actual course successful completion rate, we can simulate the expected 4-year, 5-year, and 6-year graduation rates, respectively. The simulation results further prove that the optimization of roadmap design can significantly improve timely graduation rate. In addition, we run sensitivity analysis of the timely graduation rate in response to various initiatives and policy options. The sensitivity analysis identified most effective actionable options for administration. Our findings would stimulate a mindful conversation between state legislators, administrators, academic advisors and students to confront the essential timely graduation challenge at higher education.

Su, Xuemei Su, Ming Chen, Jasmine Yur-Austin, and Ying Liu (2019). Restructuring Degree Roadmaps to Improve Timely Graduation in Higher Education. International Journal of Educational Management.