Progress each semester

presentationsMaking satisfactory progress each semester

Part 1

While success in each course is critical, for bookkeeping purposes institutions tend to look not so much at course-level data as semester data. Whether or not a student is in academic peril or the recipient of academic acclaim will depend on the student’s GPA (either for a semester or for the student’s cumulative experience over two or more semesters) and also on the number of credit hours earned by the student (either for a semester or as a result of two or more semesters’ work). It seems intuitive that success in each course should lead to success for each semester but this is not necessarily true. Oglethorpe, like almost all institutions, requires a 2.0 or better Cumulative GPA for a student to graduate. But suppose a student earned the grade of D in every course, every semester. That student would have demonstrated success at the course level (as discussed previously). The grade of D earns academic credit for the student and is therefore adjudged to be a grade indicative of course-level success. However, the grade is on the bottom end of the success scale. And if every grade the student earns is a D, the student’s Cumulative GPA would be 1.0, and the student could not graduate. So when courses are bundled together into coherent semesters, new metrics for gauging success are needed.

One way to check for success at the semester level is to realize that if a student needs a 2.0 Cumulative GPA to graduate, then every semester in which the student earns a 2.0 or better Term GPA is a semester which has been successful relative to graduation. Conversely, any semester for which the Term GPA is less than 2.0 is a semester which is unsuccessful in the sense that a long string of such semesters would guarantee that student could not achieve degree completion.

But the Term GPA is not the lone variable we can use to gauge success at the semester level. Current federal regulations allow a student only six academic years to achieve degree completion prior to the student exhausting his/her federal financial aid. Much state and institutional aid is also set up to mirror the federal timeline. At Oglethorpe, students need 128 semester hours for graduation. We think of these hours being broken down into eight regular (fall and spring) semesters, with the student earning about 16 semester hours each term. If this is what happens, the student will have earned 128 semester hours after 8 regular semesters, meaning four academic years.

But students frequently earn fewer than 16 semester hours each term. This can happen for a variety of reasons. In a common scenario, the student started out attempting 16 semester hours but was forced to withdraw from a course around midterm because of illness, excessive absences or poor performance, to cite some common examples. Thus by the end of the term the student will only earn perhaps 12 semester hours of credit. Obviously if the student withdrew from two courses, he/she may end up only earning eight semester hours of credit, etc.

Whenever students earn fewer than 16 semester hours each fall and spring semester they are not on track for graduating at the end of four years. Such students have a few options. They can make up some of the missing work in summer school and get back on track for four-year graduation. Or they can take longer than four years to graduate. But to continue getting financial aid, it is important that no more than 6 years are used. If a student was to graduate in 6 years, he/she would have to earn around 11 semester hours each term to stay on track. That is an awkward number of hours since Oglethorpe offers predominantly 4-hour courses. In terms of actual schedules, we should probably think of 11 semester hours being well approximated as successfully completing three four-hour courses (which would be 12, rather than 11, semester hours). Earning credits at a slower rate than this puts a student in jeopardy of running out of financial aid prior to graduation, which can be devastating.

In summary, there are two metrics which are needed to gauge success at the semester level:

  • Term GPA: Every semester for which the student’s Term GPA is 2.0 or better is a semester which is contributing positively to the student’s eventual graduation; such semesters are successful ones from the GPA viewpoint.
  • Term Hours Earned: Every semester for which the student earns 12 hours or more is a semester which is contributing positively to the student’s graduation prior to the expiry of financial aid; such semesters are successful from the hours earned viewpoint.

Meshing the above possibilities gives three possible outcomes:

  • The semester is successful if it is successful from both the Term GPA and the Term Hours Earned viewpoints.
  • The semester is of mixed success if it is successful from the viewpoint of one of our two metrics (either Term GPA or Term Hours Earned) and yet unsuccessful relative to the other.
  • The semester is unsuccessful if it is unsuccessful from the viewpoint of both the Term GPA and the Term Hours Earned.

Nature of Data

The same reports used to generate course-level grades data are also used to establish data on Term GPA and Term Hours Earned. The reader is referred to the earlier section for details.

Comparison Group

There is no valid external comparison group because institutions do not typically share the sorts of data required. Fortunately, no comparison group is needed to establish a valid benchmark.

Benchmark (Target)

Oglethorpe has put into place some initiatives which should positively impact success at the semester level. Over the next few years additional initiatives are being planned and will be implemented. The net effect of these should be that the proportion of successful semesters increases while simultaneously the proportion of unsuccessful semesters decreases. These trends should both continue in a semester-over-semester comparison until each item reaches an asymptote.

Data and Analysis

Four conditions are defined such that every student falls into one and only one of the conditions:

(S,S): Satisfactory Term GPA (meaning ≥ 2.0) and Satisfactory Term Hours Earned (meaning ≥ 12)
(S,U): Satisfactory Term GPA and Unsatisfactory Term Hours Earned (meaning < 12)
(U,S): Unsatisfactory Term GPA (meaning < 2.0) and Satisfactory Term Hours Earned
(U,U): Unsatisfactory Term GPA and Unsatisfactory Term Hours Earned

The data are given in the following table (all values are percentages):

ConditionFall 2013Spring 2014Fall 2014Spring 2015Fall 2015Spring 2016
(S,S)70.0172.1871.8970.2267.1371.54
(S,U)9.93
10.798.4211.147.548.81
(U,S)4.784.745.194.233.264.41
(U,U)15.2812.3014.5014.4122.0715.24

These data are portrayed visually in the following graph:

Progress Each Semester

Obviously the most probable condition is the one which is most desirable, (S,S). The challenge, however, is that the second most probable condition is the one which is least desirable, (U,U), although this is considerably less likely than (S,S) in all cases. But the most impactful thing that can be done is to convert as many of the (U,U) students as possible into one of the other categories by attacking both the Term GPA and the Term Hours earned.

It is also interesting to note that when there is mixed success—which happens both with (U,S) and (S,U)—that the proportion of (S,U) students is about twice as large as the proportion which are (U,S). This suggests that it is more difficult for students to earn 12 or more hours each semester than it is for them to earn a 2.0 or better Term GPA. This knowledge should inform the initiatives Oglethorpe develops as it seeks to improve the proportion of students who migrate “upward” in the above table.

Lastly, it is informative to note that the proportion of (S,S) students is typically lower than the proportion of students which are retained going from the first to the second year. Recent retention rates have been between about 70% and 80% but the above table shows that the number of students in the (S,S) category hovers around 67-72%, noticeably lower that the retention rate. A reasonable conjecture is that we are retaining some students who have demonstrated mixed success, meaning are either (S,U) or (U,S) (and perhaps even some of the (U,U) ones). The key to retaining such students not just for a year but to the time of degree conferral, however, is to move them into the (S,S) category as expeditiously as possible.

Making satisfactory progress each semester

Part 2

In the previous section we looked at one way to classify success at the semester level. There are other ways, one of which is examined here.

At the conclusion of each semester, the status of some students changes from “Good Standing” to “Warning,” “Probation” or “Dismissal.” The criterion used to make these assignments is purely based on a student’s Cumulative GPA at the conclusion of each semester. Right away one sees that this is a fundamentally different criterion than used in the previous section: A status change to “Warning,” “Probation” or “Dismissal” pertains to the Cumulative (rather than a Term) GPA, and the issue of Term Hours Earned is of no longer of any importance.

What is of importance, however, is the Cumulative Hours Earned, according to the following:

  • If the student has earned a total of 35 or fewer semester hours (in aggregate), then the Cumulative GPA required for Good Standing is 1.50.
  • If the student has earned a total of 36-64 hours then the Cumulative GPA required for Good Standing is 1.75.
  • If the student has earned more than 64 hours then the Cumulative GPA required for Good Standing is 2.0.

Obviously, as a student more closely approaches his/her last half of the collegiate experience, the requirements for Good Standing gradually increase until we reach the cut-off required for eventual graduation, namely a 2.0 Cumulative GPA.

The first time a student does not satisfy the requirements for Good Standing, he/she is placed on Warning. As the name implies, Warning is a state in which the University (and hopefully the student) acknowledges that the student’s academic success must be enhanced or he/she is in danger of eventually being dismissed for academic cause.

The goal of Warning is to take the next semester and to improve. Hopefully the improvement is sufficient to get the student back in Good Standing. But if that is not possible in just one semester, then a secondary goal would be to do relatively well in the term in question, meaning to get at least a 2.2 Term GPA. If the student is able to accomplish this, then he/she can stay on Warning indefinitely. Eventually, earning enough 2.2 Term GPAs should put the student back in Good Standing.

Sometimes the student does not achieve Good Standing after a semester on Warning and, simultaneously, does not earn a Term GPA of at least 2.2, which would allow the student to at least stay on Warning. In these instances the student is placed on Probation. Probation is a final concerted effort to change the student’s academic outcomes. The student has one additional semester on Probation to either return to Good Standing or at the very least to achieve at least a 2.2 Term GPA, which would put the student back on Warning. If neither outcome is achieved after one semester, the student is dismissed, meaning he/she must leave the University for at least one regular semester (fall or spring, including any intervening summer semester). After that period of reflection, if the student wishes to apply for readmission he/she may.

If, at the end of a given semester, a student’s status is “Warning,” “Probation” or “Dismissal” then we will classify the student as being in “Academic Peril.”

At the opposite extreme, the University publishes its Dean’s List after each regular semester. To be named to the Dean’s List requires the student have achieved a Term GPA of at least 3.50 while earning 12 or more semester hours.

We would think of a student on the Dean’s List as one who has achieved “Academic Acclaim.”

Each semester we track the number of students in Academic Peril and also those who have received Academic Acclaim. Obviously, there are a lot of students not in either category. We would think of that large segment of students as those who have achieved “Academic Success,” but not to the degree of having earned Academic Acclaim.

Nature of Data

The same reports used to generate course-level grades data are also used to establish data on Warning, Probation, Dismissal and Dean’s List. The reader is referred to the earlier section for details.

Comparison Group

There is no valid external comparison group because institutions do not typically share the sorts of data required. Fortunately, no comparison group is needed to establish a valid benchmark.

Benchmark (Target)

Oglethorpe has put into place some initiatives which should positively impact success at the semester level. Over the next few years additional initiatives are being planned and will be implemented. The net effect of these should be that the proportion of those in Academic Peril should decrease, resulting in an increased proportion of students who are experiencing either Academic Success or Academic Acclaim. Seeing these trends occur in a semester-over-semester comparison until all values reach asymptotes would be our benchmark for success.

StatusFall 2013Spring 2014Fall 2014Spring 2015Fall 2015Spring 2016
Warning5.532.724.743.962.953.35
Probation1.222.521.432.941.631.50
Dismissal1.121.511.700.461.240.62
Academic Peril (Sum of Above)7.876.757.887.365.835.46
Academic Acclaim (Dean's List)23.3424.7023.0128.1522.3827.67
Academic Success68.7968.5569.1164.4971.7966.87
Ratio of Peril:Success:Acclaim1 : 8.7 : 3.01 : 10.2 : 3.71 : 8.8 : 2.91 : 8.8 : 3.81 : 12.3 : 3.81 : 12.2 : 5.1
It is encouraging that there are usually proportionately many more students on Warning than in either the Probation or Dismissal categories. However, the aggregate category, Academic Peril (which includes everyone in Warning, Probation or Dismissal), is of significant size. Yet it is still much smaller than both Academic Success and Academic Acclaim groups, as is illustrated in the final row of the table. It is perhaps surprising that we have 2.9-5.1 times as many students on Dean’s List as we do on Warning, Probation or Dismissal (combined) any given term. Likewise, we have 11.7-17.3 times more students not in academic peril as we do in such peril.

It is a good sign that the proportion of students in Academic Peril was noticeably smaller during academic year 2015-2016 than previously. But it is far too early to tell if this is a sustainable trend. It will be interesting to see how the character of the above changes as we allow new initiatives to develop which are targeted at improving the fortunes of our students who are in academic trouble.

We can finish by talking about the impact of one existing program, called EXCEL. This program was developed during the fall 2012 semester, specifically as a way to try to provide academic interventions to support students currently on Warning and Probation and also those students who have recently been readmitted (perhaps because they were previously dismissed for academic cause). The program is required for those on Warning and Probation, and is also mandatory for those who have been readmitted after being academically dismissed.

During the fall 2013 semester, there were 39 students who were either required or encouraged to participate in EXCEL. Of those, 15 fully participated, 4 partially participated and 20 did not participate at all. At the end of that semester, the 15 which fully participated had a mean Term GPA of 2.75. Those same 15 students had a mean term GPA of 1.25 only the semester before, meaning that full participation in the EXCEL program correlated with an increase of 1.50 in the participant’s term GPA after a single semester, which is an astonishingly promising result. Meanwhile, of the 20 students who did not participate at all, their GPA at the end of the fall 2013 semester was 1.16, whereas it had been 1.02 the semester before. This not participating in the EXCEL program correlated with changing the Term GPA by only 0.14, surely an inconsequential bump. Since its inaugural debut in the fall of 2013, the EXCEL program has continued to operate in the way described above. Data similar to those mentioned above have been collected and are presented in the following table.

 

Semester of EXCEL ParticipationFall 2013Spring 2014Fall 2014Spring 2015Fall 2015Spring 2016
Number of Students Invited to Participate394558514352
N Showing Full Participation1512189915
Mean Term GPA the Previous Semester1.251.941.581.241.281.34
Mean Term GPA After EXCEL2.752.912.912.512.632.39
Net Change in Term GPA+1.50+0.97+1.33+1.27+1.35+1.05
N Showing Partial Participation4510111314
Mean Term GPA the Previous Semester1.441.691.581.531.751.22
Mean Term GPA After EXCEL1.061.591.531.642.021.53
Net Change in Term GPA-0.38-0.10-0.05+0.11+0.27+0.31
N Showing No Participation202830312123
Mean Term GPA the Previous Semester1.021.101.231.571.341.15
Mean Term GPA After EXCEL1.161.411.071.671.351.32
Net Change in Term GPA+0.14+0.31-0.16-0.10+0.01+0.17

 

The EXCEL program is but one of several initiatives either active currently or planned for the near future which we hope will make more favorable not only grades in individual courses but also in helping students make satisfactory academic progress each semester.