New Offerings for Students and Advisors Aim to Increase Retention, Success Rates

Posted: November 22, 2013 at 5:02 am, Last Updated: November 26, 2013 at 7:02 am

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By Cathy Cruise

students in classroom

Several initiatives are under way to ensure that students are progressing smoothly through their programs and graduating with a distinctive Mason experience under their belts. Photo by Alexis Glenn

While George Mason University continues to see increased enrollment numbers each fall, the number of students who remain at George Mason until they graduate, and how satisfied and successful they are during their time here, may provide even more significant indications of the value of the university.

Several new initiatives are under way to make the path from enrollment to graduation a smooth one for Mason’s undergraduates, and according Jeannie Brown Leonard, dean of the Office of Student Academic Affairs, Advising and Retention, they will help to revolutionize the way students and advisors plan for and proceed through degree completion at Mason.

Student Success Collaborative

The university is participating in a Student Success Collaborative with the Education Advisory Board (EAB). The EAB is helping to analyze 10 years of student course-taking data to determine exactly what factors help — and don’t help — students receive the diploma of their dreams.

The collaborative is identifying such things as critical courses, sequencing, key grade thresholds, milestones throughout a student’s college career and credit accumulation patterns to help predict success in every undergraduate major.

The analysis will answer some key questions about Mason students’ university experiences, Brown Leonard says, such as: “Are certain courses critical to student success? Is earning a C sufficient to be successful in upper-division courses? What about transfer students — do the courses they take at community college differentiate them, and do they need to meet a higher grade threshold there? Where are opportunities for interventions at certain points in a major where we often lose students? These things give us an interrogation point to learn more.”

Once success markers are identified, a software platform will be created that allows advisors to search out majors, put in clear markers and notifications about the pathway a certain student is following, and confront problems students might face that can either support them in their chosen major or redirect them along a different path.

A leadership team is examining success markers and interpreting data that was validated in September. The SSC tool is expected to be in place by the end of November for pilot programs, and nonpilot programs should be ready to go by February 2014.

Degree Works

With leadership from the Registrar’s Office, the university has launched a tool designed for students. The Degree Works system, a user-friendly online tool, provides a comprehensive resource for academic advising and degree auditing that can help students and advisors negotiate Mason’s curriculum. For years, students have been able to monitor how well they’re meeting their major, general education and advanced hours requirements, but now the audit is “smarter” and easier to read. Any student who entered Mason on the 2012 catalogue and sooner will be fully integrated into Degree Works, but anyone can do a what-if degree audit.

“What if I wanted to change majors?” Brown Leonard says. “How do my current courses apply toward that other degree plan? What’s nice is that students and advisors can easily access this system, so it’s for everyone.”

Student Education Planner

A Student Education Planner, a feature of Degree Works, is also in the planning stages. This tool will guide students in not just what courses they should take, but when they should take them.

“This will sequence students along a pathway so they understand what the prerequisites are and what a reasonable credit load might look like,” Brown Leonard explains. “We want to say, here’s what a four-year plan looks like for a major in communication; here’s what it looks like for computer engineering. Then, knowing full well some of our students aren’t on a four-year plan, advisors can say, let’s stretch this out to six years, and this is what that sequence might look like. If they go off track, there’s a flag that says they need to pay attention.”

It will also help departments anticipate course demand. If, for instance, a high number of students indicate in the planner a need to take History 300 during an upcoming semester, department chairs can decide how to staff those courses and determine if new sections should be added.


Another part of the student success platform is Beacon, an early-alert survey tool that will measure things such as student resilience and academic self-efficacy. Beacon is based on a survey of undergraduates, and takes into account students’ confidence in managing academic challenges, commitment to behaviors that support academic success and level of participation in the campus community. Additional questions were added about students’ intentions to transfer and whether they live in residence halls or commute. These answers will help administrators better understand students’ goals and their connection to university life.

“We’re encouraged by the fact that this tool will give us universal access to undergraduates and help us be intentional about understanding not just who’s in trouble, but who’s doing extraordinarily well and how we provide additional challenges for them,” Brown Leonard says.

Under the leadership of Ashley Sieman, director of Assessment, Research and Retention in University Life, Beacon is currently being used by the University Life staff and is being piloted by a handful of advisors this semester. Once these new offerings are in place, and added to the host of other resources already available for fostering student success at Mason — from learning support and advising to transitionary assistance and career exploration — retention rates and overall student satisfaction are expected to escalate. This, Brown Leonard says, will better reflect the exceptional experience Mason provides.

“If you can measure where students start and where they finish, you can tell the story that, when they complete a degree at Mason, they have improved on things like critical thinking and communication, and developed a sense of efficacy and well-being. They are happier, resilient and articulate. They understand their role as a citizen and a scholar. They are the Mason graduate, and they’re leaving here with a distinctive Mason experience under their belts.”

Write to Cathy Cruise at

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