University System Guides Students into Majors Earlier to Improve Graduation Rates

University System Guides Students into Majors Earlier to Improve Graduation Rates

“What’s your major?” is a common question on college campuses. Georgia’s university system is changing its practices to shorten the time a student answers, “I’m undecided.”

Some students step on campus with a clear idea of their academic focus, such as engineering or fine arts, but many struggle to decide on a major. This can cause them to take unneeded classes and delay graduation. In fact, the overall six-year graduation rate for the University System of Georgia is 61 percent, and a student typically has 134 credits at graduation, similar to national averages. Graduation rates are lower among students from low-income families, first-generation college students and Black students, who face additional hurdles navigating college.

To streamline students’ coursework, Georgia schools will now guide all students to choose a general direction like business, humanities, education, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) or health professions by freshman orientation—when many students step onto campus for the first time.

Academic focus areas, interest areas or meta-majors all describe a group of related majors with overlapping first-year course requirements. Some larger universities might already organize majors into colleges that correspond with academic focus areas. Organizing all students into academic focus areas can help build community and mutual support among students, boost grades and retention and reduce the number of courses students take unrelated to their degree requirements. For example, first-year students at Georgia State University who participate in Freshman Learning Communities, or small student cohorts with the same focus area and schedule, earn higher grades and are more likely to continue to their second year than students who do not. Given these promising results, the university system hopes focus areas will help increase college graduation rates.

These efforts are part of a system-wide initiative called Momentum Approach, also known as Momentum Year. These terms describe a suite of strategies to improve college completion rates, such as guiding first-year students to choose a major or academic focus area early, mapping first-year courses to start students off on the right foot and promoting a so-called “productive academic mindset,” which centers on the belief that intelligence can be developed and is not a fixed trait. Schools may implement reflective exercises for students about how intelligence can grow or train instructors on how to provide feedback that frames challenges as growth opportunities and sends the message that students can be successful.

Focus Areas Provide Course Maps for First-Year Students

In an academic focus area, students will have more structure and fewer course choices their first year. Each focus area corresponds to a first-year “course map” of 30 credit hours and includes introductory English, a math course aligned to the student’s interest area and nine credit hours in the selected focus area. Previous data show that first-year students who fulfill these requirements are more likely to graduate.

In some colleges, course maps can manifest as choosing among multiple pre-built schedules. This approach contrasts with the so-called “à la carte” or “cafeteria” model of course selection, where students choose each course and create a schedule on their own.

“I didn’t know much about selecting courses [my first year]. Because neither of my parents went to college, so it was really hard at first…. I will say it wasn’t the easiest thing for me.”
– Amea Thompson, a senior at Valdosta State University

Students who struggle to choose a focus area can select the Exploratory focus area, which will trigger more advising and counseling services to guide students in narrowing down their options. For example, advisors might reach out to students before orientation and offer interest inventories or develop other first-year activities to help these students choose a major. Earlier contact between students and advisors can help facilitate more frequent contact in the future.

The university system plans to track how students narrow down from focus areas to individual majors and how often students switch between focus areas. It updated its data systems to collect and analyze the new focus area information.

Funding Critical for Advisors to Support Students

Colleges and universities often struggle to have enough trained advisors to support students in making their decisions. With focus areas, students will now expect to have access to advisors even before they step foot on campus.

Advisors are a critical element of executing academic focus areas well and using data to improve graduation rates. Amea Thompson, a senior at Valdosta State University, started college as a mass media major with the goal of working in sports broadcasting but experienced doubts after struggling with a required course her sophomore year. She says, “I was at a crossroads.” She talked to an advisor who guided her towards switching to the communications major. Without intervention, she says, “I probably would have transferred… I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t think there were other majors that I was interested in. I probably would have transferred institutions and gone back home.”

“[Without advising] I probably would have transferred institutions and gone back home.”
– Amea Thompson

Academic focus areas hold the potential to help more Georgia students graduate from college or graduate faster. Supporting this and other Momentum Approach strategies through adequate funding for advising is key to its success. Student services like advising are effective at improving graduation rates yet represent only a fraction of institutional budgets and are vulnerable to cuts.

Takeaways

Public funding for colleges has gone down at the same time that more students from low-income families, first-generation college students and students of color who may benefit from additional advising enroll in college. Today, 85 percent more low-income students enroll in Georgia’s university system than ten years ago, and college enrollment among Black and Latino students has far outpaced population growth. Developing talent from every community across Georgia, removing hurdles to graduation and increasing the number of Georgians with a college education is critical to moving the state forward.

Learn more about Georgia’s public colleges and universities in the Higher Education Data Book.

Read more in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “How Some Colleges Are Helping Freshmen Find Their Academic Focus.”

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