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Wake Tech Finish First boosts completion rates

In 2016-17, the number of Wake Technical Community College students who received certificates, diplomas, and associate’s degrees skyrocketed. In total, Wake Tech handed out a combined 8,208 of the awards, up from 4,344 the year before. The secret to the school’s success? Finish First, a data project that aims to increase the number of students completing community college in some form.

Chart courtesy of Wake Tech

For years now, Wake Tech has offered certificates students can earn before they ever complete their associate’s degree. Previously, a student just worked towards a two-year degree, and if they had to leave before finishing, they may have left empty handed. But by creating a certificate system whereby a certain number of courses would lead to a certificate that was accepted by the business community, students may leave before getting their associate’s but still have some increased job potential by virtue of receiving a certificate. 

It all sounds good except for one problem. Not every student knew when they were due a certificate. 

“If you didn’t know that those nested certificates were there, and we didn’t inform you as well as we should, you may have earned some milestones along your way to your associate’s degree and not be aware of it,” said Bryan Ryan, Senior Vice President of Effectiveness and Innovation at Wake Tech. 

With almost 30,000 students, it was impossible for a small number of student advisors to accurately advise students on what certificates they were owed, so Ryan and his team decided to do something about it. 

They started with a proof of concept, taking between 1,500 and 1,600 students, grouping them into different categories and dividing them between Ryan and his team. They looked at the students, compared the classes they took against the school catalogue, and tried to figure out if any of the students were eligible for certificates or anything else they hadn’t been awarded. 

“We were surprised that even in that manual process, we noticed there were so many students who have completed credentials,” Ryan said. “In certain cases, students have completed associate’s degrees.”

While the process looked like it was going to be promising, doing this work manually was not a sustainable plan. With 30,000 students and 275 programs, doing it by hand would require about 8.25 million comparisons. Ryan and his team calculated they would need about 180 people to do it effectively. They decided it was time to innovate. 

“So we developed a computer program that can compare each and every one of our students with each and every one of our programs,” said Kai Wang, Senior Dean for Strategic Innovations & Wake Tech Online Chief Campus Officer. 

Wang developed the program himself. He used to be the department head for computer programming at Wake Tech, so he had the skills to make it work. And the completed product was a dream. 

“Now we can do that 8.25 million comparisons in a few minutes,” he said. 

Ryan likened the program to a blender. Put in all the programs and all the students, and what comes out are certificates students didn’t even know they’d earned. 

“You may have stumbled into a program you didn’t even know you were taking,” Ryan said. 

Ryan and his team have presented about the project to other community colleges in the state, which are free to take advantage of the software if they’d like with some help from Wake Tech faculty. 

However, the earned but unreceived certificates are the low-hanging fruit. What Ryan and his team are really trying to do is reach out to students who haven’t received their degree, certificate, and/or diploma to see how they can help them finish. 

In the case of students who earned a degree or certificate already, that’s easy. But what about the student who drops out a few credits shy of getting a diploma? Or the student who signs up for classes but never shows up to the school? Using the program developed by Wang, Ryan hopes Wake Tech can develop an automated system that monitors where students are in the process and remind them how near they are to their goal. 

“We compare your transcript with our credentials. If we find out that you are within one semester of graduation, I’m going to single you out,” he said. “And we’re going to also identify the classes that you need to take to complete that credential.”

Chart courtesy of Wake Tech

Wake Tech has been online with Finish First since last fall, and the results have been spectacular, almost doubling the number of students receiving some type of award. If a similar system were spread statewide, the results could be mind-boggling. 

Wang said that there are thousands of students who came to a community college in the state, didn’t finish, and have now completely left the system. In that group, there are lots of people who are owed certificates and even associate’s degrees they didn’t know they deserved. Wang estimates if just a small percentage of those students could be reached, 10,000 more people in the state could be owed or near to getting credentials from a community college. 

Finish First is good for students, but Ryan said it is also essential for community colleges. For one, community colleges are funded, in part, based on student completions. If a student transfers to a four-year college without picking up their diploma from Wake Tech, or someone is owed a certificate but never gets it, that affects the funding Wake Tech receives. Another issue is one of reputation. Community colleges aren’t always viewed favorably, and Finish First can help change that. 

“Part of the knock on community colleges now is that they serve a lot of students, but they’re not serving them well, because they’re not completing,” Ryan said. “We thought that there was a different story there that students were actually being successful.”

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.