Soyla Santos, University of Texas at Arlington
In the great state of Texas, higher education has been tasked with achieving 60% certificate or degree completion for residents between the ages of 25 and 34 by the year 2030. This goal is known as 60x30TX (60 by 30 Tex) and requires higher education stakeholders to address college affordability, workplace skills, and, in some instances, re-imagine the college experience to better serve students (Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, 2015). Unfortunately, it is common for undergraduate students to encounter barriers to timely graduation, and some of these barriers are inadvertently placed before students by institutional or administrative structures, routines, practices, and procedures. College campuses may offer services to support students that are experiencing hardships, but these resources may be siloed and difficult to access. The 60x30TX goal is an ambitious goal, but one of its greatest attributes is that it encourages creativity. This is where an office like the University of Texas at Arlington Graduation Help Desk, with the help of the advising community, can make an impact.
In 2015, the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, learned that “college administrators and faculty often felt a strong desire to improve the degree prospects and life chances of their students and were visibly frustrated by their seeming inability to do this with limited resources” (Goldrick-Rab, Anderson, & Kinsley, 2016, p. 135). The implementation of programs like single stop at community colleges helped students connect with benefits by leveraging partnerships and technology to connect people to existing resources through a unique one-stop shop. Graduation help desks work in a similar fashion.
Established by the University of Texas System in summer 2017, each graduation help desk serves as a one-stop resource to help students overcome obstacles to timely graduation. All University of Texas campuses received funding for a graduation help desk with each campus deciding on location and staff needs. For instance, the Graduation Help Desk at the University of Texas at Tyler is located in the One-Stop Service Center with admissions, records, enrollment, and financial aid, while the Graduation Help Desk at the University of Texas at Permian Basin is located in the Student Success Center with tutoring and mentoring.
Regardless of location, the mission is simple: help ensure every student’s success. Each graduation help desk serves as a centralized office for university-wide collaboration to identify trends and roadblocks affecting students across academic units. Graduation help desks consolidate campus and community tools and resources to provide quick resolutions, and are able to be both data-driven and student-centered.
How It Works
At the University of Texas at Arlington, all students are referred to their academic advisor to discuss their concerns about any type of obstacle that may hinder their progression towards graduation. Advisors review and explore solutions. While advisors are often the most knowledgeable resources about specific degree requirements, they are not always positioned or empowered to recommend changes to institutional policies and procedures that may present roadblocks, nor do they necessarily have the authority to elevate students’ concerns beyond their office or department. If the student and advisor are unable to resolve the concern, then it is escalated via email to the graduation help desk by either the student or advisor on the student’s behalf.
The Graduation Help Desk at the University of Texas at Arlington was housed within the Division of Enrollment Management with two full-time staff members with over 25 years of academic advising and registrar experience. This year, the graduation help desk has transitioned to the Division of Student Success with a new model including one full-time staff member and six supporting roles. The graduation help desk staff work quickly to review the barrier to timely graduation, investigate, and respond with a resolution within 48 hours. Resolutions require creative solutions from staff and agreements from key stakeholders. Top-level support from institutional leadership also plays an important role in the success of the graduation help desk.
It is important to note two factors. First, the graduation help desk is decidedly not neutral. Regardless of what has happened in the student’s academic or personal past, graduation help desk staff are student advocates. A resolution is provided to help the student progress toward degree completion. The resolution may not be what the student wants, but all efforts are made to remove barriers. Second, there are limitations to the types of obstacles that can be escalated. Again, the graduation help desk does not serve as a student’s first stop. Students are encouraged to work with their advisor as a first solution. In fact, the first question asked of the student is “What have you done on your own to resolve your concern?” Additionally, creating the ideal course schedule is not a graduation help desk priority; the focus is on what a student needs to graduate not which professor or course section they prefer.
Over the last two years, the Graduation Help Desk at the University of Texas at Arlington has resolved nearly 1000 referrals with an average resolution time just under 24 hours. The data is compelling. Annual reports have been a tool to promote the implementation of policy and procedural changes and additional academic advising training.
During the 2018–2019 academic year, the Graduation Help Desk at the University of Texas managed 513 unique student cases. A majority of referrals were women (58%), and nearly a quarter of referrals came from students in health-related majors. Over 65% of students came from underrepresented ethnic groups: Hispanic/Latino (22.61%), Black/African American (18.91%), Asian (21.25%), and American Indian/Native Alaskan (2.53%). It is no surprise that most referrals were seniors, but the second highest referral group was freshman (16.57%); very few referrals came from sophomore or juniors (less than 10% combined).
Nearly half of all referrals involved students in their final semester who were desperate for help. Most common barriers included financial concerns, missing credit, course equivalency issues, grades, GPA, enrollment holds, class availability, and, the dreaded, misadvising. Most concerning was the frequency in which graduating seniors were referred to the graduation help desk, after census, with one credit hour short of degree requirements. In a majority of cases, with the exception of financial concerns, academic advisors were a vital link to understanding the backstory and needs of the students, although advisors were not submitting the referral. Over 60% of referrals came from students and less than 20% were from advisors.
On the road to reaching the goals of 60x30TX, the Graduation Help Desk at the University of Texas at Arlington has uncovered some basic truths about academic advising and timely graduation. Most notable, students from underrepresented groups need more guidance as they maneuver through the systems within higher education. Academic advisors are well suited for the task and can best serve their students when they are creative thinkers, empathic, and empowered within their position. Having a one-stop resource like the graduation help desk encourages a culture of completion for both students and advisors.
Students, especially those in underrepresented groups, deserve the best advisors—advisors that are willing to provide hope and encouragement and advocate for their students without judgement. Advising is a unique student service in that advisors reach all students throughout their academic journey and help them bounce back after both academic and life set-backs. To become the best, advisors need consistent and continued training and support not only in the areas of academic policy and procedures, but also leadership, communication, and resilience.
According to Tripathy (2018), “creativity is one of the most essential skills among effective leaders.” Academic advisors are leaders, and creative thinking is an absolute must when seeking solutions to barriers to degree completion. However, advisors are often stalled at the first or second step of creative thinking: collecting information and engaging in thinking or attempting to find possible solutions (Tripathy, 2018). Advisors should be able to troubleshoot nearly any barrier that arises for their students. This means that advisors also need to be positioned and empowered to find and act on possible solutions. Being unable to select the best solution and put it into action can be frustrating for both advisors and their students.
Working environments that leave academic advisors with no time to read professional literature, attend professional conferences, or without freedom to explore “wouldn’t it be cool?” projects stifle an advisor’s ability to be a catalyst for student success and timely graduation. Advisors should be encouraged to grow as a professional and visualize degree plans as roadmaps with a multitude of possibilities for reaching the destination. Cultivating a culture of creativity is highly recommended as the alternative leads to an advising culture of uninspired and burnt out advisors (Kirkner & Levinson, 2010). Mistakes are made in this type of environment and students pay the price.
Furthermore, leadership should rely on advisor insight, in addition to resources like graduation help desks, because of their firsthand knowledge from working directly with students. Great advisors know their students and their roadblocks to graduation. Advisors should be prominently involved in conversations that recommend changes to institutional policies and procedures because advisors can provide solutions that will make an impact (Steele & White, 2019).
Associate Director, Graduation Help Desk
University of Texas at Arlington
Goldrick-Rab, S., Anderson, D., & Kinsley, P. (2016). Paying the price: college costs, financial aid, and the betrayal of the American dream. The University of Chicago Press.
Kirkner, T., & Levinson, J. (2010, September). Inspiration and innovation: The value of pursuing 'wouldn't it be cool?' projects in challenging times. Academic Advising Today, 33(3). https://nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Inspiration-and-Innovation-The-Value-of-Pursuing-Wouldnt-It-Be-Cool-Projects-in-Challenging-Times.aspx
Steele, G., & White, E. (2019). Leadership in higher education: Insights from academic advisers. The Mentor: Innovative Scholarship on Academic Advising, 21, 1–10. https://journals.psu.edu/mentor/article/view/61110/60874
Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. (2015). 60x30TX. Texas Higher Education Strategic Plan: 2015–2030. http://www.thecb.state.tx.us/reports/PDF/9306.PDF?CFID=57485581&CFTOKEN=60423954
Tripathy, M. (2018). Role of creative thinking as an imperative tool in communication at workplace. Journal of Organizational Culture, Communications and Conflict, 22(2), 1–7. https://www.abacademies.org/abstract/role-of-creative-thinking-as-an-imperative-tool-in-communication-at-workplace-7438.html
Cite this article using APA style as: Santos, S. (2020, March). Resolving roadblocks to timely graduation: Graduation help desk and the impact on advising. Academic Advising Today, 43(1). [insert url here]