MARCH 18, 2021 — For the past three years, the Graduation Help Desk has been on a mission to help more students graduate. Established at UTSA in 2017 through a $222,000 grant from the UT System to support student success initiatives, the GHD has taken on over 4,388 cases from students encountering barriers to graduation.
In March of 2020, students suddenly found themselves facing a host of new challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the help desk became one of many services at UTSA helping students work through these new issues.
“The Graduation Help Desk is one of many laser-focused initiatives within UTSA’s Division of Student Success designed to support the academic advancement of our undergraduate students,” said Tammy Wyatt, UTSA vice provost for student success.
Students can contact the virtual Graduation Help Desk directly or be referred by a faculty or staff member. According to retention and graduation program coordinator Matt Keneson, the cases that are brought to the Graduation Help Desk are often complex and can require several days or even weeks to resolve. The pandemic has also created new difficulties for students.
“We’re seeing many of the same issues we’ve always seen but with the added stressors of online learning and greater financial strains for those that haven’t been able to work as much,” Keneson said. “Communication in general has been a challenge as well. Early on, many areas were having to adjust their delivery models, and they’ve been receiving a higher volume of emails and phone calls ever since, so we’re making sure to track our cases more closely than normal to ensure that things do not fall through the cracks.”
The office has put significant effort into proactive outreach campaigns, taking steps to intensively monitor students’ progress toward graduation.
In one case last year, the GHD was able to help a student turn the unique challenges related to COVID into an opportunity to finish her degree. The student hadn’t attended in over a year, but after the office proactively contacted her about the online course options for summer 2020, she enrolled in summer courses which were now fully online. The online courses gave her the flexibility to finish her last few requirements, and she was able to graduate that summer.
As a result of these efforts, proactive outreach cases have increased from 34.8% of all cases in 2018 to 67.4% of all cases in 2020. The number of students served by the GHD has increased each year, and at least 1,148 graduates have had some form of contact with the GHD during their time at UTSA.
The cost of earning a degree has become a major concern for students nationwide, and for many these concerns increased in the wake of COVID-19. While UTSA has implemented initiatives, such as the Bold Promise financial aid program to provide additional support to students, the Graduation Help Desk has concentrated its efforts on helping students finish their degrees as efficiently as possible. To date, the Graduation Help Desk has saved students an estimated $2.16 million in tuition and fees.
“Increasing the amount of aid available to students is a key part of helping them graduate,” Keneson said. “Increased aid is only one side of the coin though. Financial aid eligibility can run out, so we need to make sure that students aren’t using their financial resources for courses that don’t help them make progress toward graduation.”
One of the Graduation Help Desk’s most notable campaigns reaches out to students that register for courses they have previously completed with a grade of C- or better. Students are notified that completing the course will not provide them additional credit toward their degrees and could both delay their graduation and increase their total tuition costs.
The approach the Graduation Help Desk takes to resolve student problems is multi-faceted and holistic. Keneson often works to resolve issues on behalf of students by reaching out to other entities on campus in order to get to the root of the issue. And while a student or a referring faculty or staff member may think the situation is an isolated incident, the help desk provides a more complete picture of any systemic issues.
Keneson notes that “we stay involved until the problem is resolved,” which means the work is not over when a particular student’s case is cleared up. Working on individual cases illuminates sticking points in the system where students get caught up, and the Graduation Help Desk works to address these problems by advocating for changes to university policies, processes and systems.
“We want to remove roadblocks to graduation wherever possible so that the challenges experienced by students in the past do not affect more students moving forward,” Keneson said.
Many of the changes made have allowed students to use more of their prior credits toward their degree requirements and have provided students with additional options for completing their remaining requirements.
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