Renewed calls for racial justice have led many stakeholders within U.S. higher education to consider the ways in which their campuses do, or do not, advance racial justice and equity. Progress on racial justice is a complex task requiring thoughtful and sustained engagement within and across multiple campus communities, but institutional leaders at multiple levels can avail themselves of several points of entry to this process.
One point of entry is the DFWI rate, which is the percentage of students in a course or program who get a D or F grade, withdraw (“W”) from a course, or whose progress in the course is recorded as incomplete (“I”). A critical examination of the DFWI rate is an immediate and often illuminating step toward creating meaningful change for minoritized students.
Black, Latino, Indigenous, and other minoritized student groups have been consistently plagued by higher DFWI rates than their white peers for as long as these indicators have been tracked, as have poverty-affected students , first-generation students, and women. If your college or university wants to confront and remove equity gaps, an immediate practical step is to take a hard look at its DFWI rate.
The connection between the DFWI rate and gateway courses
Research has shown that gateway courses are a major accelerant of the DFWI rate and serve as a significant barrier to long-term college completion and success. Gateway courses are required for a student to make progress in a degree program and are often the first courses students take when starting their college careers.
When students aren’t given the support necessary to succeed in these courses, the impact on their progress can be enormous. Additionally, students often end up taking on debt for gateway credits or using up their Pell grant eligibility, which can impact their ability to stay in school or to return later after a stop out.
There is data that makes a clear connection between high DFWI rates and gateway courses. For example, the higher ed enrollment analytics firm EAB says that:
- One-third of DFWIs come from just 1 percent of all courses;
- 85 percent of course retakes occur in just 5 percent of all courses; and
- Courses with five or more sections have a 24 percent lower completion rate.
Data also shows that when a gateway course has a high DFWI or DFW rate, it disproportionately affects minoritized, poverty-affected, and first-generation student populations, negatively impacting their abilities to complete degree programs and further worsening inequity within the institution.
For example, a 2018 report by the Gardner Institute surveying gateway courses in three subjects — accounting, calculus, and chemistry — found that student performance is a direct predictor of retention rates. Even leaving aside students dismissed because of academic standing, there were significant groups of students who were in good academic standing but who chose not to return the next term. That was highly correlated to having one or more unproductive credit.
Furthermore, students from poverty-affected households and minoritized students tend to have higher DFWI rates in these courses. The DFWI rates of Black students ranged from 16.3 percentage points to 20.9 percentage points higher than those of white students in the three courses Gardner studied.
Asking why a course has high DFWI or DFW rates — particularly when it’s the entry to a degree path — can reveal practical steps to improve equity in a college or university.
Why do gateway courses have such high DFWI and DFW rates?
There is nothing about gateway courses that make them inherently more likely to result in a DFWI. Ideally, students would find these essential courses to be welcoming and highly accessible, and the courses would be designed to identify and encourage students with an interest or talent in a particular field. Gateway courses should be where colleges and universities cultivate the enthusiasm and determination of the students in a way that prepares them for long-term success.
However, in many colleges and universities, gateway courses are designed to have very high enrollment, which may mean less individual attention for each student and less personalized support if they are struggling. It’s as if the entrances are narrowest where the most people are trying to get through.
The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) looked at their completion data and found that the larger the class size, the higher the DFWI rate. Classes with more than 100 students had DFWI rates that were twice as high as classes with under 25 students, a trend that continued over the five years the university measured, even as overall DFWI rates improved.
Some people argue that high DFWI rates are not primarily the result of course design and implementation, but of some students’ inability to meet high academic standards, often because of a low level of college readiness.
But in the Gardner report referenced earlier, Drs. Andrew Koch and Brent Drake note that, while high DFWI rates are often cited as being the fault of inadequately prepared students, “the outcomes also suggest that the courses do little to mitigate inequity. In other words, these courses are often structured to push students out rather than to provide an instruction experience that lifts them up toward their education and occupational goals.”
Redesigning courses to support students
The UWM evaluation referenced earlier includes suggestions for improving DFWI rates: focus on reaching more students individually, point struggling students to campus resources, offer more office hours, and improve course accessibility.
Other projects working to improve the DFWI rates emphasize offering individualized instruction to students, improving engagement in the classroom, and catching struggling students early in order to get them in-time support.
Of course, many of these suggestions conflict with the reality of gateway courses at colleges and universities nationwide. Their large enrollments make providing each student with individual attention difficult, and there are often limited campus resources to offer more sections and reduce per-class enrollment.
An intense focus on designing effective supports is part of the solution. One example is Eastern Michigan University, which took part in Gardner’s Gateways to Completion initiative to reduce DFWI rates in gateway courses. They focused on closely integrating the university’s supplemental instruction (SI) program, which provides support for students both in and out of the classroom. The sections with “built-in SI” had as many as 12 times the visits to SI, and EMU reported that DFWI rates dropped 12 to 18 percentage points in the redesigned sections.
Can digital learning technology close DFWI rates?
In the absence of increased staffing to offer more course sections, many institutions will look to scalable technology solutions to provide more personalized learning in high-enrollment courses.
For example, Oregon State University (OSU) used a three-year grant from the Association of Public & Land-grant Universities to implement adaptive courseware into gateway courses like College Algebra, which had a historical DFWI rate of up to 75 percent in its online section. After OSU implemented adaptive courseware in Fall 2017, the rate dropped nearly 20 percentage points from the previous quarter. As instructors continued restructuring the course and adding supplemental instruction such as videos, the DFWI rate improved until it was in the low 20s.
A new set of examples is emerging from the Every Learner Everywhere network, which works to extend digital learning technologies to increase equitable outcomes in higher education. Technologies such as adaptive learning have the potential to personalize learning for every student even in large gateway courses — if they are designed and implemented thoughtfully. After all, as we’ve discussed previously, technology can also reproduce existing inequities if old course structures are uncritically duplicated in an online format.
To that end, Every Learner Everywhere is supporting pilot projects that approach digital learning technology thoughtfully. Some recent examples include colleges and universities that are:
- using data to make adjustments as a semester progresses;
- using data to support continuous course improvement;
- getting all the instructors of a course aligned around the same goals;
- building effective and sustainable faculty development;
- nurturing faculty learning communities that work on digital learning;
- including adjunct faculty in course design;
- including the campus tutoring center in course design; and
- disaggregating student learning data from online coursework.
As these examples show, adaptive learning technology can’t be “set and forget,” and high-enrollment gateway courses don’t have to be filters that screen out students. Courses designed to implement digital learning technology in the interests of equity and inclusion from the beginning hold the promise of dramatically decreasing DFWI and DFW rates and finally delivering on the opportunities that have long been promised to minoritized, poverty-affected, and first-generation students.
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Originally published November 2020. Updated September 2021 with additional information and references.