University encourages four-year graduation

by Kristin Gustafson

More and more students are going to feel a push to stop dillydallying with their studies and graduate in four years or less.
It is a move University administrators say is better for the students and better for the institution.
Students who graduate in less time are more attractive to future employers and financially better off in the long run, they say.
And students who take five, six or more years to complete degree programs drain University resources — such as libraries, computer facilities, laboratories, advisers and administrative services — more than those who tap into these services for less time.
A recent budget task force recommended the University make vigorous efforts to create incentives for students to take full course loads and graduate in four years. “A dramatic increase in four-year graduation rates will allow the University to educate more students more cost effectively, while at the same time providing each student a better educational experience,” the report said.
The University’s four-year graduation rate lags behind other Big Ten universities with a rate of 23.5 percent, while the University of Michigan leads the pack with 62 percent.
However, the University, nestled between two major metropolitan cities, educates a different and more diverse profile of students than most Big Ten universities.
This diversity is vital to the University, said Steve Rosenstone, College of Liberal Arts dean and the budget task force chairman, and the institution must not prevent, stop or discourage any student from obtaining a university education given the historic mission of the University to serve all Minnesota students.
But graduating in five, six or seven years might not be in the best interest of some students, he said. Employers have told him they find students who graduate in four years more attractive because it demonstrates perseverance and commitment, Rosenstone said.
Most students agree with the University’s graduation priority, he added. More than 73 percent of incoming Twin Cities campus freshmen surveyed said they expect to graduate in four years or less.
So the University ought to help make that happen, Rosenstone said.
And while many students get the incentives and messages to help with a four-year graduation rate, others who have work, family and other needs requiring a slower educational process are also given support, Rosenstone said.
Aaron Street, political science junior and Student Senate vice chairman, said the University has a duty to nontraditional students.
Street, who said he expects to graduate in four years, said other students are mostly amazed at his graduation goal. He said he appreciates this flexible attitude.
“I don’t like one-size-fits-all as the best solution for all people, because it isn’t,” Street said.
Ellen Birmingham, English senior and Returning Women Students president, said she appreciates the University’s push to say it is a place “for serious students who are responsible and want to complete their degree in a time-efficient manner.”
And though the University should be sensitive to the needs of all students, Birmingham said the University’s four-year graduation message resonates with most returning students as they do not have the time or financial leeway to explore and dawdle with graduation.
“School time is not play time for the returning student,” she added.
The University has made programmatic and service changes to encourage students to graduate on a more timely basis, said Bob Bruininks, University executive vice president and provost. “You can’t think of this as just one intervention.”
This year the University discounted its tuition, offering every semester credit above 12 at half price, to encourage increased course loads.
And in an attempt to keep students closer to classes, the University has added campus housing and increased campus work opportunities.
Efforts to increase the number of merit-based scholarships and improve financial support for low-income students should help minimize the need for outside jobs and help students stay in school, Bruininks said.
The University has also stepped up efforts to teach students that it might be more cost effective to borrow and finish college sooner and get into the job market than it is to spread the education out over more years.
“The rate of return by getting out early is much better than staying in for five or six or even seven years,” Bruininks added.
The University will continue pushing its graduation goal this year and in the years ahead. Five years from now, Bruininks said the goal is to increase the graduation rate by 5 or 10, or even 50 percent.

Kristin Gustafson covers University administration and federal government and welcomes comments at [email protected].