A Portland State program that helps struggling students graduate is now in its second year.
Founded in February 2010, Last Mile was born out of the University Studies program as part of a campus-wide effort to increase retention and graduation rates.
Financial struggles and the bewildering complexity of degree requirements seem to be the biggest road blocks faced by students, according to experts.
James Ofsink, assistant director of Financial Aid at PSU, sees a target audience who are almost done with degrees but not quite there.
“This group seemed like the easiest to go after because of how close they already are to graduation,” he said.
Last Mile was designed to focus on students who are within 15 credits of degree completion and have already applied for graduation, said Martha Dyson, academic advisor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
“We work with students on a case-by-case basis to see what their situation is,” Dyson said.
Many times, she added, all it took to help students reach graduation was the rearrangement of a class or two.
“Sometimes a student just needed to switch majors because they already had enough classes out of the way,” Dyson said.
Or sometimes a Bachelor of Arts became a Bachelor of Science requirements or vice versa.
There’s also the issue of language requirements: Dyson explained that many students find foreign language classes difficult after years away from speaking practices and drills.
Dyson is one of five new academic advisors that the university hired in December as part of PSU’s initiative to assist students in course planning and fulfilling degree requirements.
Staffing the Last Mile program is part of Dyson’s job description.
“Before we came on, they just didn’t have the ‘people power’ to get this done,” Dyson said.
The program has already generated a gold mine of data for administrators to evaluate.
Sukhwant Jhaj, a Student Success special assistant, wrote in his blog that “between summer 2005 and fall 2007, around 350 students had enough credits to apply for graduation, but did not finish.”
Additionally, the data shows that “the primary reason for leaving Portland State on the cusp of graduation may not be academic performance, but financial or other reasons.”
Jhaj explained that the question of why students drop out so close to graduation and what it will take to help them finish can be challenging.
By February 2011, a year after inception, Last Mile graduated 71 students. As of today, The program has assisted around 100 students who wouldn’t have finished college without help.
“I was very surprised when they passed 50 students,” Jhai said.
Last Mile is overseen by administrators from both academic and financial departments. This way, the program can help students in almost any situation.
“We’ve found that most of them just need some direction,” said Amanda Nguyen, bursar in Business Affairs.
According to Robert Mercer, assistant dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and chair of the Last Mile program, PSU is the only university hosting such a program.
“We’d love it if the other Oregon schools would do something like this,” Mercer said.
In its first year of operation, Last Mile received a $50,000 donation from the office of the university provost.
Mercer said that the gift allowed Last Mile to grant students who’d run out of financial aid or faced holds on their accounts the $500 or so needed to fund these final few credits needed before graduation.
“We hope that we’ll get another allocation to help people financially,” Mercer said. “About half the students that fell into this Last Mile group had financial holds that kept them from registering.”
Last Mile staff are optimistic about the future.
“There’s a lot of energy and a lot of enthusiasm,” Jhaj said. “I hope we can identify a set of process changes to address the need of students on an ongoing basis.” ?