This May, as commencement ceremonies occur across the country, Alverno College will celebrate a special group of graduates while simultaneously addressing a sobering statistic in higher education.
According to the Council of Graduate Schools, graduation rates for doctoral degree candidates can be as low as 50%. In many cases, this figure represents students who have invested thousands of dollars in their doctoral degrees, and completed the required coursework and exams, but have not yet satisfied their dissertation requirements.
At an average length of 150 to 300 pages, a dissertation is no mere term paper. It represents years of academic study, and the amount of time and research it requires is a major factor for doctoral candidates who languish in “all but dissertation” status.
Milwaukee-based Alverno College is hoping to change that. Having launched an all but dissertation track in its online Doctor of Education program, the college is combining a dissertation-integrated curriculum with its own innovative approach to the Ed.D. degree. On May 21, the first cohort to complete the ABD track will graduate.
“For many concentrations, our doctorate in education has been designed to provide dissertation support from day one, allowing students to complete their dissertations in lock-step with their coursework,” said Alverno Doctorate in Education Program Director Jim Heiden, Ph.D. “We recognize that students in our all-but-dissertation program are coming in at different points in their dissertation progress, and we truly meet each student, each adult learner, exactly where they are and provide them with rigorous, engaging, independent, interdependent, inspiring learning that leads them to the attainment of their doctoral degree.”
While completion times can vary by institution and discipline, it typically takes an average of five to seven years after starting graduate school to obtain a doctoral degree. Because it builds on a student’s previous coursework, Alverno’s accelerated, 30-credit, ABD program is designed to be completed in two with each year containing a fall, spring and summer semester.
Students enrolled in Alverno’s online ABD program will ultimately earn a Doctor of Education with a concentration in teaching and learning in higher education — one of three online Ed.D. concentrations offered by the college.
As with all of its degree programs at the bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate levels, Alverno’s ABD students benefit from the college’s award-winning, abilities-based assessment criteria. Alverno is a global leader in this respect and received the 2021 Trudy W. Banta Lifetime Achievement in Assessment Award, which recognizes national leaders in assessment work. Traditionally an individual award, Alverno was the first institution to receive the prestigious honor.
“At Alverno, we don’t use letter or number grades,” said Director of Graduate Programs Desiree Pointer-Mace, Ph.D. “We measure progress against the successful attainment of course outcomes. Each course has a very clear set of course outcomes, and as students progress, they get regular feedback from faculty and engage in regular self-assessment in relation to specific criteria.”
According to Pointer-Mace, it’s a transformative practice, particularly for ABD students. “They come to our education doctoral program, and without exception, they are delighted and surprised at how we upend their expectations of online learning because they didn’t expect to be on a first-name basis with their faculty, and they didn’t expect to have meaningful relationships with colleagues who live all over the country, and yet, they do.”
Josef Vice can vouch for that. “I never imagined I would have one-on-one meetings for an hour every two weeks with an advisor who would spend that time with me and help me with the specific issues I’m having and keep me on track.”
Vice, who lives in Georgia, has been stalled in ABD status since the 1980s. Now he’s hoping to complete Alverno’s Ed.D. program at the end of this year and ahead of schedule. “I have my first proposal defense next Friday, and that’s because of that combination of working with someone one-on-one and also with my committee,” he said. “I can’t believe that, in the last two weeks, they have read three revised drafts, given me extensive feedback each step of the way, helped me at every stage and supported me. On top of that, my classmates are cheering me on, and I’m doing the same thing for them, so it works very well, and it’s totally unique. I don’t know of any other program like this, and I looked high and low.”
Sharyn Warren is another Alverno student and an assistant professor in the business division of the School of Professional Studies at Alverno College. She’s also a member of the college’s first ABD cohort.
“My story starts in 2008, and as I’m meeting more ABD students, I’m learning that many of them have long histories of being ABD and not being able to finish.”
Warren completed her doctoral coursework in 2010 at another institution. Then life intervened, and despite attempting several times to restart her dissertation, it was 2020 before her path crossed with Alverno’s newly launched ABD concentration.
“They met me where I was,” she said. “That is an absolutely true statement. Alverno understands that learners are unique, and each person’s dissertation is different. This journey is one that requires commitment and time management, but it’s manageable. I’m happy, and I’m very excited to be an Alverno alumna soon.”
Warren will graduate this spring, and along with the rest of the class of 2022, she’ll don her cap and gown and wait expectantly for her name to be called. She’ll walk across the stage and smile as she accepts her degree, and in so doing, she’ll step outside the ABD statistics and into the esteemed percentage of scholars who hold a doctoral degree and a special place in the ever-evolving history of Alverno College.
About Alverno College
Founded in 1887 by the School Sisters of St. Francis, Alverno College promotes the academic, personal and professional development of its students in a collaborative and inclusive environment. Undergraduate programs for women are offered in more than 60 areas of study, and graduate programs in education, nursing, community psychology, school psychology, music therapy, music and liturgy, and business are open to women and men.
A leader in higher education innovation, Alverno has earned international accolades for its highly effective ability-based, assessment-as-learning approach to education, which emphasizes hands-on experience and develops in-demand skills. The college, Wisconsin’s first Hispanic-Serving Institution, ranks among the top schools in the Midwest for its commitment to undergraduate teaching and innovation by U.S. News & World Report. For two years, The Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education named Alverno the country’s most inspiring college.
Based in Milwaukee, Wis., Alverno College is a four-year independent, Catholic, liberal arts college.