A just-released report from the watchdog organization Education Trust holds up UNCG as a role model for other universities working to improve graduation rates.

UNCG is one of only eight universities in the nation set apart by Education Trust for best practices in retaining and graduating students — especially minority and low-income students — in the report, “Learning from High-Performing and Fast-Gaining Institutions.”

UNCG’s six-year graduation rate for undergraduates has risen steadily, increasing from 50 percent in 2003-04 to 54 percent in 2012-13. Undecided majors advised by UNCG’s relatively new Students First Office had a retention rate 22 percent points higher than undeclared students who did not use Students First.

“As leader of this university, I am gratified to see our efforts to improve retention and graduation rates recognized by Education Trust,” said UNCG Chancellor Linda P. Brady. “We have concentrated significant resources in this area and we have made significant gains. We should be proud of this trend as it benefits not only the university but also our students and the greater community.”

Specifically, the new report discusses the efforts of UNCG’s SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) Retention Committee, formed in 2009. The committee looked closely at several factors that might impact retention and graduation rates, including gender and ethnicity, financial need and having an undeclared major.

The SWOT team found that having an undeclared major has a large negative impact on a student’s chances of graduating. To address this issue, the university established the Students First Office as a resource for exploratory students, helping them settle on a major.

Preliminary data shows that Students First, launched in fall 2011,  is working. According to the report, retention of students with undeclared majors rose from 76 percent in 2010-11 to the current rate of 80 percent.

A closer look at the data shows that Students First has had an even greater impact on student success, according to Dana Saunders, Students First director: Exploratory majors advised by Students First over the 2012-13 academic year had an 88 percent retention rate — 22 percentage points higher than the 66 percent retention rate for those who did not seek help through Students First. The 80 percent retention rate reported by Education Trust represents an average retention rate for exploratory majors.

“As highlighted in the Education Trust report, Undergraduate Studies has relied heavily on data to inform constant improvements in academic supports for UNCG students,” said Steve Roberson, dean of Undergraduate Studies. “The creation of the Students First Office is just one example of cutting-edge new approaches garnering national attention.  I am very proud of my innovative and remarkable staff who work tirelessly alongside their faculty colleagues to improve learning.”

In addition to Students First, some of the university’s schools and departments have also taken proactive approaches to address the issue of undecided students. The School of Health and Human Sciences (HHS)  hired Bill Johnson, a certified dream coach who blogs as the “Dream Dean,” six years ago. Johnson, who also holds a master’s degree in physical education, created a one-credit course for first-year HHS students that he runs as a group coaching session. The class helps students define what they want to achieve in their careers and their lives.

Students who took Johnson’s class showed an 80 percent retention rate and a five-year graduation rate of 61 percent, about 12 percent higher than the university average. He is now looking to offer the class to more students.

A 2013 report from Education Trust also cited UNCG for closing the graduation gap between white and black students. The university — with a black student population of just over 23 percent — has graduated black students at similar or higher rates than white students at least since 2002.

Graduation rates for black students at UNCG jumped to 60.1 percent in 2011 from 52.3 percent in 2010; the graduation rate for UNCG’s white students was 51.9 percent in 2011. Nationwide, the gap between black and white graduation rates was still 22.2 percentage points in 2011, based on statistics from the U.S. Department of Education.

Story by Michelle Hines, University Relations