U wants you to finish in 4 years

Almost 45 percent of students graduate in four years, compared with 14 percent a decade ago.

by Emma Carew

Super seniors may soon be a thing of the past.

Little more than a decade ago, only 14 percent of University students graduated in four years. Administrators said a shift in central policy and philosophy toward graduation is changing that number.

The most current numbers showed almost 45 percent of students who entered the University in 2003 graduated in four years.

Policy changes, such as the four-year graduation guarantee, offered to students beginning in 1997, and the 13-credit tuition banding, which began in 2002, have resulted in the increase, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Bob McMaster said.

The University hopes to reach a four-year graduation rate of 60 percent with the class admitted in fall 2008.

The University has made “remarkable progress” on graduation rates and retention, said Chris Kearns, assistant dean for student services in the College of Liberal Arts.

CLA uses a model of advising based on engagement and connections, he said, and the college requires a high number of contacts between first-year students and their advisers, beginning with orientation.

“We used to have on this campus not nearly as much emphasis on making sure students had the information needed to graduate,” he said. “It was much more of a laissez-faire kind of campus environment.”

The changes in attitude began under the tenures of former University presidents Nils Hasselmo and Mark Yudof, he said.

“In 1992, Hasselmo and some others said, ‘We need to be a bit more attentive to undergraduate education.’ ” McMaster said, noting that Yudof continued the trend of pushing four-year graduation rates higher each year.

Yudof was responsible for the four-year graduation guarantee, he said, which students can sign in their first year, that states if a student does everything they’re supposed to and makes plans to graduate on time, the University will guarantee access to the classes needed to graduate.

According to the plan, if a student cannot gain access to classes he or she needs for timely graduation, the University would foot the bill for the extra semester – which has yet to occur, McMaster said.

Retaining students throughout their college careers has also evolved over the years, associate vice provost Laura Coffin Koch said. The University has begun to put more emphasis on the first-year student experience.

The administration is working with individual colleges to be “very intentional about what happens in the first year,” she said.

First-year experiences like convocation, which began in the Yudof years, and freshman seminars look to help students engage, Coffin Koch said.

Data show students who enroll in freshman seminar courses, which generally have 15 to 20 students taking a non-standard course, having higher first-to-second year retention and higher four-year graduation rates.

The current first-to-second-year retention rate is about 86 percent, she said.

Factors like having large credit loads, taking advantage of academic support and limiting off-campus work hours can contribute to timely, or untimely, graduation rates, Coffin Koch said.

Sam Shoemaker, who graduated in summer 2007, said although he took an extra year to graduate, he doesn’t regret the decision.

Shoemaker said he took a year off to work, then studied abroad in Florence.

“I think it enhanced (the experience),” he said. “You appreciate your education and the opportunities you’re afforded much more when you get to being away from school.”

Shoemaker said not all students know what they want to do immediately after high school, and it shouldn’t be viewed as a negative thing to graduate in more than four years.

The University still has work to do in the area of graduation rates, Kearns said.

“We’ve taken a number of large steps that work with large groups,” he said. “To move forward now – how can we work with different student cohorts that have different needs?”