Measuring University Performance Series (MUPS)
February 1, 1998
Table of Contents:
The University of Florida series, Measuring University Performance, will take up additional topics reflecting the university's commitment to measuring university performance in quality and productivity of research, teaching, extension, and service.
All of us at the University of Florida welcome comments and suggestions prompted by this series. Please write to the Office of Institutional Planning and Research, PO Box 113115, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611-3115 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Two years ago we reported on the problem of students taking more hours than is actually required for a degree, known as "excess hours." This analysis of credit hours-to-degree showed that the average University of Florida student takes about 24 credit hours beyond those required for the final degree. The report concluded that about one half of those excess hours could be eliminated by better managing students' progress through the system.
Over the past two years the University of Florida has made great strides to do just that. UF has implemented a university-wide student tracking system, improved access to and the quality of academic advising, and ensured the availability of core classes. This has allowed the admission and retention of more students than previously possible.
All three enhancements-tracking, improved advising, and guaranteed core classes-are components of a major, comprehensive initiative called Universal Tracking (UT). Implemented in Fall 1996, this tracking system monitors the progress of all undergraduate majors toward graduation. Universal Tracking is designed to assist students in finding the best path toward completion of their degree, to advise them in the most appropriate major, and to provide feedback on their academic progress. In short, its goal is to help students graduate with the smallest number of excess hours possible and to increase retention.
Students are kept informed of their progress via a tracking audit that is mailed to them each fall and spring semester prior to advance registration. The audit tracks the student's academic record against what courses and requirements should be completed each semester based on their degree program-known as "critical tracking criteria." Students who are off track because of poor grades or taking inappropriate classes cannot register until they have met with an advisor and have devised a plan to get them back on track. If they are still off track after two semesters they will be counseled to choose a new major that better matches their talents and interests. As long as a student stays on track, he/she is not required to see an academic advisor (except prior to their first semester registration in which they meet to formulate their academic plan).
Students who matriculated in Summer B 1996 or later will pay a fee if they exceed the hours required for their degree by more than 10 percent. The goal of this policy is to further encourage students to take the appropriate courses, not to prevent a student from changing majors. In fact, the University of Florida has made it easy for students to explore the requirements for different majors. An online system called ISIS allows UF students to assess a new major's impact on their graduation timetable (i.e., excess hours) based on their current academic records.
While upper-division students are not tracked in the system, they do benefit from the enrollment management aspects of Universal Tracking-ensured course availability, increased advisor intervention, and emphasis on graduating in a timely manner. UF's focus on the latter does seem to be paying off. The graduation rates of those who were in their fourth or fifth year at UF when Universal Tracking was implemented increased by 3 percent and 4 percent, respectively.
In order for Universal Tracking to have a large impact, the university realized it had to make two fundamental changes. First, students are now required to choose a major and are accepted into that college upon entering UF rather than in their junior year as in the past. Early affiliation with a college enables the university to provide the best academic advising possible from the college offering the major. Moreover, it gives the student an excellent opportunity to evaluate the college before investing a lot of time and money.
A second fundamental change was to redesign the advising system to be proactive rather than reactive. Academic advisors in each of the colleges now initiate the process rather than waiting for the student to seek help. Identifying those students who are having trouble early in their academic career aids in retention and reduces excess hours. Moreover, focusing on the non-succeeding students allows for more efficient use of the university's limited resources.
While upper-division students are not monitored by Universal Tracking, they are more likely to have their records audited and/or be required to see an advisor than they were under the old system.
An added benefit from implementing the Universal Tracking system was that it required all departments and colleges to fully examine their programs and degree requirements, and to agree on what those requirements should be. While this occurs from time to time among the various academic units, the university-wide action to define the critical tracking requirements encouraged greater cooperation and comprehensive evaluations.
Nearly sixteen thousand students are currently monitored by the Universal Tracking system. Seventy-three percent of these students were on track at the end of Fall 1997 semester-a 6 percent increase over Spring 1997.
Of the 27 percent off track, almost half were predicted to be off track (based on a check of their records early in the semester) because they were not enrolled in a critical class or their GPA was too low for their major. Those who are predicted to be off track receive earlier intervention than those who are not. Of those not predicted, only 119 students-less than one percent of the total monitored-were off track for the second consecutive semester and had to see an advisor before the spring semester began or their registration was cancelled.
Over the past two years, we have seen the average number of excess credit hours per graduating student decline by nearly two points to 22.55 from 24.2. It is important to note that this 1.65 decrease per average student equals 12,923 saved credit hours; these savings help the university serve more students. Part of the decrease in hours is due to systems and procedures implemented in 1994 and 1995 as we moved incrementally toward the more comprehensive Universal Tracking program.
The decline in excess hours however, must be attributed to the enrollment management aspects that UF has focused on in recent years rather than the tracking aspects. Because these data are based on students who were juniors and seniors when Universal Tracking was implemented we are only seeing a fraction of the true value of this far-reaching program.
As more students progress through the system, and benefit from all the components of UT, we anticipate increasingly larger declines in excess hours. And, the graph does support this belief as the Spring 1997 graduating class shows a larger decrease in average excess credit hours (1) than the prior year's (.65) class. Students are becoming increasingly aware of UF's emphasis on graduating on time.
In our previous report on excess hours, we showed that changing majors more than one time during the course of one's career leads to excess hours. While it is too early to fully assess the impact of Universal Tracking on changing majors, initial signs are quite positive. Three-fourths of freshmen entering in the fall of 1997 did not change their major at all-a 20 percentage point increase over the previous fall's group of new freshmen. Clearly, advisors are doing a better job of emphasizing the importance of selecting one's major carefully and helping student's find a suitable major based on their interests.
We also believe that simply providing to each student a semester-by-semester outline of the courses required for their major has made a significant difference. This plan helps students to see more clearly what is in store for them over the next four years.
Unavailability of courses is another reason for excess hours, and a problem that is greatly reduced by the use of Universal Tracking. By knowing the plan for each student, the university can now more easily and more accurately project the appropriate number and types of courses to be offered each semester.
Critical to increased course availability has been the weekly monitoring of Telegator (phone registration) and ISIS (online registration) to determine what course sections need to be added for that semester based on actual demand. In Spring 1998, we added 2,565 new seats in a variety of courses because of the monitoring of demand during registration.
In the past UF projected what courses would be offered each semester by looking at past demand. Now, we can supplement this initial projection with the data provided by the Telegator and ISIS systems. Moreover, we are just beginning to refine these projections by also factoring in what courses the students actually need to take based on an audit of all student records.
Signs of improved academic performance since the inception of Universal Tracking include:
Academic performance is improving because of the early intervention of advisors and, more importantly, UT forces students to change majors when they are not succeeding instead of letting them get further and further behind while they cling to their chosen major.
We are also seeing the benefits of Universal Tracking through increased retention. The number of continuing students-those who were enrolled in the preceding semester-has increased greatly during the past year. The latest data show that there are 2,118 more continuing students this spring term than in the previous spring. In comparison, the increase between Spring 96 and Spring 97 was 475 students. Clearly, Universal Tracking is making a difference in retention.
To date, Universal Tracking has met all the expectations we had when devising this system. But, it is constantly being evaluated-by administrators, staff, faculty, and students-and modified when necessary. In fact, shortly after implementation, the semester audits were revised after students indicated they were difficult to read. While we anxiously await the graduating class of 2000 and the data it represents, it is perhaps the intangibles like the overall quality of one's academic experience at UF that will provide the biggest payoff for both students and the university.
Diane D. Craig