Crossing the finish line

By Michelle Fauver

A data tool has led to thousands of students claiming credentials

In North Carolina, community colleges have used the data tool Finish First NC (FFNC) to award at least 30,000 additional degrees, diplomas and certificates to students in just four semesters.

The FFNC data tool, which rapidly identifies students with unclaimed completed credentials and students close to completion, was created by Wake Technical Community College and is used at nearly 90% of community colleges in North Carolina, helping them award unclaimed credentials, advise students on completion pathways and re-enroll former students. Recent data suggest that FFNC has impacted credential attainment rates at colleges across the state.

“We’ve found that tens of thousands of students across North Carolina are fulfilling the requirements for credentials—an entire transfer degree, information systems certificate or cosmetology diploma, for example—but aren’t aware,” says Bryan Ryan, senior vice president of effectiveness and innovation at Wake Tech. “The data tool has also identified hundreds of thousands of students who are a few credit hours shy of completing a credential. Our colleagues around the state can utilize this data to engage in conversations with students about their shortest path to success.”

Starting with curiosity

Wake Tech began using Finish First NC in 2015, and since that time, FFNC has helped the college award an additional 14,360 credentials to students who had fulfilled requirements through the end of the Spring 2021 semester. In 2017, Ryan’s team began disseminating the tool to other community colleges, and leadership at the NC Community College System (NCCCS) later made it a goal to help Wake Tech implement the tool at all 58 colleges in the system. Participating colleges have reported to Wake Tech that FFNC has helped them award at least 30,000 degrees, diplomas and certificates to students who were enrolled in the Spring 2020, Summer 2020, Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 semesters. The tool leverages several insights and innovations to yield significant results while requiring modest resources on the part of each participating college. The NCCCS now includes Finish First NC as a strategic priority.

“This started as a curiosity about our students’ progress toward completing Wake Tech programs and a suspicion that they were far more successful than we recognized,” Ryan mentions. “Still, we were surprised at what we found. Our pilot at Wake Tech suggested that there were also opportunities for students at other NC colleges to claim the credentials they’ve earned.”

Data from the NCCCS show that for the 50 institutions that adopted the Finish First NC data tool from the 2016-17 academic year to the 2020-21 year, the number of credentials awarded increased by 11.7%. The impact was greater for early adopter colleges that have used the tool for longer. Institutions in the initial group of colleges that piloted the technology saw an overall increase of 16.3% in the number of credentials awarded for the same four-year period. With access to Finish First NC, community colleges in the state are positioned to leverage their use of the tool to push North Carolina closer to the myFutureNC educational attainment goal of 2 million high-quality credentials by 2030.

“When we run the tool with a single college, the output is sometimes hundreds of unawarded credentials that the college can award to students right away,” says Laila Shahid-El, project director of the statewide Finish First NC initiative. “Medical issues, conflicting life priorities, or even an unexpected car repair expense can mean a student who is one or two classes away from finishing a degree never completes it. This technology has helped colleges in North Carolina remove barriers to completion for students in specific and personalized ways.”

Colleges that use Finish First NC have reported that the tool has highlighted opportunities to remove barriers to completion such as updating graduation policies and finding ways to increase efficiency in the graduation process. Institutions are making it easier for students to automatically receive earned credentials, removing graduation fees, and connect their learning to proof of job readiness.

Other benefits

The tool has also helped boost completion rates at Wake Tech and other institutions.

“It’s likely that this innovation is a contributing factor to the increased four-year completion rates across the state,” says Dr. Kai Wang, Wake Tech’s senior dean of strategic innovations and co-creator of the data tool. “Of the 10 colleges that have seen the highest increase in four-year completion rates, six of them adopted Finish First NC either as a pilot college, or in the following group of colleges.”

With enrollment wavering in higher education, some colleges have used the tool to boost re-enrollment. Wake Tech used data from Finish First NC last year to conduct a “stop-out” re-enrollment campaign first with internal resources and then in partnership with the student outreach organization InsideTrack. In this collaboration, FFNC data identified 1,288 students who left the college although they were within just one semester of completion. Of the students contacted, about 200 re-enrolled in the next term to finish the credential they had nearly completed. The impact of the FFNC data allowed InsideTrack outreach coaches to have more detailed, nuanced conversations with students to help them re-enroll. Finish First NC not only provided a list of students that were near completion—it also identified just how close those students were, highlighted tangible goals, and illuminated specific, actionable next steps that drove them to return to Wake Tech to complete.

“While the pandemic generally negatively impacted enrollment in higher education, we’ve been able to use this tool to support student success not only on the enrollment end but also on the completion end,” says Wang. “The targeted stop-out campaign demonstrated how data-informed and data-driven personalized outreach serves our students and institution best.”

The team at Wake Tech has been able to disseminate the tool to other North Carolina Community College System colleges thanks to grant funding from the John M. Belk Endowment and Lumina Foundation, and they have partnered with the NCCCS and University of North Carolina System on the effort to benefit students, colleges and communities across North Carolina.

Michelle Fauver

is the media relations and project manager at Wake Technical Community College in North Carolina.