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Getting college students back and on track

Supporting reinstated students to promote retention and completion
University Business, November 2017

Cindy Boyer has made it her mission to help reinstated students succeed. A decade ago, she was the sole employee of a retention-focused student success office at Eastern Illinois University when a student who had been dismissed twice applied to return. Because of concern the student might fail once again, Boyer took him under her wing.

And an idea was born.

She proposed creating the Reinstated Student Program, which initially helped 40 students when launched. Now she and her staff of five graduate assistants—from the departments of school counseling, clinical counseling and student affairs—have reached about 500 students.


Sidebar: Coaching grad students who stop out


“It takes some of us longer than others to find our path, and it so important that everyone has a second chance,” Boyer says.

While nearly every college and university focuses on retention, an emerging area involves going a step further: ensuring students who have returned after being dismissed for poor academic performance stay on track to completion.

How 4 institutions have shaped reinstatement policy

Eastern Illinois University

A dismissed student can reapply to return after one semester. Those who attended another university must earn a 2.0 GPA to re-apply. Students who have been dismissed twice must write an appeal letter to a reinstatement committee that will determine whether the student has shown progress in the time away. A voluntary personalized academic support plan helps the student get back on track.

University of Washington

To re-enroll, dismissed students must submit a statement explaining the reasons for dismissal and how they’ve been able to address those circumstances. When a petition is approved by a reinstatement committee, the student meets with the manager of student success to determine how to meet the committee’s recommendations and requirements. (cont.)

Helping students find success

Academic dismissals aren’t as simple as they appear.

“I’ve found that it has very little to do with academic ability and a lot to do with other things getting in the way—like personal issues, finances, health—and sometimes lack of motivation or lack of desire for the major,” says Boyer. “Those can all lead to poor grades.”

During Eastern Illinois’ reinstatement process, students get help developing an individualized academic plan covering:

  • study skills, note taking and test taking
  • time management and goal setting
  • motivation and self-responsibility
  • campus involvement

Because many reinstated students have low GPAs, success doesn’t come easily. In 2017, 39 of the 67 reinstated students at Eastern Illinois completed the academic plan and gained good standing. Those who didn’t seek support were either put on academic probation (36 percent) or dismissed a second time (26 percent), Boyer found.

Elsewhere, the University of Washington’s College of Arts and Sciences is also focused on students needing a second chance. In 2015, administrators launched a pilot specifically targeting reinstated student success—and nearly 150 students have now been helped.

A 10-year study of graduation rates had identified the need. On average, 200 students were being dismissed per year due to low grades. About half were later readmitted, but less than 4 in 10 ultimately graduated—compared to 84 percent of students overall.

Felipe Martinez, manager of student success, serves as case manager for reinstated students. That role involves engaging with colleagues across the university to follow through on the recommendations of a reinstatement committee.

Perhaps the student must take fewer classes, create a different class schedule, commit to academic tutoring or work fewer hours. These students must see an academic advisor and are matched with a tutor-mentor, typically an upperclassman with the same major. Martinez then follows up regularly to ensure students are staying the course.

“Sometimes students are dismissed because they didn’t know how to ask for help or where to go,” he says. “At that point, we need to make it easier to provide support.”

Fewer reinstated students have been dropped a second time, compared to in the past, while the academic performance of these students is up.

How 4 institutions have shaped reinstatement policy (cont.)

Georgia State University

Reinstated students must work with an advisor to complete both an action plan and an academic improvement plan. Students who were on scholastic suspension must wait one calendar year before applying for readmission; students who were on scholastic exclusion must wait five or more years before applying for readmission.

Rowan University (New Jersey)

Students dismissed for academic reasons can’t re-enroll at Rowan for one year. To return, they simply indicate their interest on a web form, and Rowan staff facilitates the process of them getting back to the university. Students meet with a degree completion specialist, who directs them to an academic advisor to ensure they register for needed courses and, if appropriate, refer them to the tutoring services coordinator for additional academic support.

Answering the call for intense advising

Reinstated students need more than run-of-the-mill academic advising. At Georgia State University, readmitted students who had been dismissed for academic reasons receive advising targeted more to their personal needs, compared to advising for the overall student population.

The practice is part of a broader effort to overhaul the university’s advising model.

The GPS Advising System, launched in 2012, doubled the number of academic advisors—with a current ratio of 1 advisor to 300 students. The system uses predictive analytics and alerts to identify the kinds of academic behaviors that, in the past, may have led to dismissal. It also predicts when they may need assistance.

Based on 10 years of university data, the system generated a list of 800 student actions that could negatively affect academic performance—such as not earning a particular grade in a course that predicts success in a subsequent course, registering for a class required for academic progression, or withdrawing from a course required in the degree program.

Reinstated students complete both an action plan and an academic improvement plan that include a recommended class schedule and target a “good academic standing” GPA. The student can take only a limited number of credit hours and will meet regularly with the advisor until achieving multiple semesters of good standing.

Many who leave or are academically dismissed are in the wrong major. For example, they may not earn the grades to get into a specific degree program, such as nursing or engineering.

“We don’t want to kill anyone’s dreams, but we want to make sure they have a viable path forward for their education,” says Allison Calhoun-Brown, associate vice president for student success.

Advisers may refer students to academic coaches (graduate students or campus staff) to provide additional support. Georgia State’s overall graduation rate has gone from 40 percent to 54 percent in the past decade—the biggest rise in graduation rate of any U.S. higher education institution in that time, Calhoun-Brown says.

Streamlining readmission

Dismissed students (or those who stop out on their own) may feel apprehensive about trying to re-enroll—or find the process too cumbersome. Rowan University in New Jersey is trying to change that. In 2014, officials streamlined the reinstatement process. Since then, applications to return to Rowan have increased by 60 percent.

Students used to go through many steps to reapply. They had to complete a transfer application, even though they weren’t transferring, and pay a fee. An interview and transcripts may have been required, too.

“It was not a student-friendly process,” says Rory McElwee, vice president for enrollment and student success.

A simple web form now allows students to show interest in returning. A Rowan degree completion specialist will get in touch to assist with the next steps.

“We are not going to put additional obstacles in their way to re-enrolling,” says McElwee. “The way I see it, once they are a Rowan student, they are always a Rowan student, so if we can find a way to welcome them back, it is a win-win for everybody.”

Rowan is also aiming to prevent academic dismissals and stopouts in the first place. That involves inviting students on probation to complete the Academic Reboot intervention program and requiring at least one meeting with an early intervention specialist.

A degree completion specialist refers students who do leave and return to the right academic advisor to ensure they’re prepared for that first semester back.

As with anyone in the student population, reinstated students still get support from a team of nearly 100 advising, tutoring, coaching and career advising staff.  Within a semester, they tend to blend in with the rest of the student population—but it’s not as if at that point they get left behind.

“We’ve built a large infrastructure here to support student success that includes a professional advising model,” says McElwee. “So all of our students are receiving a lot of proactive outreach and intervention from faculty, advisers and others on campus.”


Elaina Loveland is a Northern Virginia-based writer.

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