A dream deferred: the struggle to graduate

Year after year, more students are filling out registration forms than resumes. For increasingly fewer seniors does the end of the spring semester signify graduation and subsequent entrance into the big, wide “real world.”

It is no secret graduation rates at our University are a big problem. Our average student now takes between five and six years to complete his or her degree. And we’re not talking about doctors or pharmacists here – just average, undergraduate degrees. According to figures from the 2000 school year, approximately 51 percent of University graduating students complete their programs in six or more years. This dismal percentage ranks last among the top 50 universities in the world.

Naturally, those within the University brain trust can not be too happy with its dismal ranking. After all, how can the University, one of the most widely respected research and educational universities in the country, maintain its status when its students take so long to graduate? If the University wants to maintain its reputation as one of the top universities in the country, a reputation it deserves, then repairing this dent in the armor should be among its top objectives.

With that idea in mind, I have listed some suggestions on how the University might help boost their graduation rates without killing the student at the same time. Of course, I am not University President Mark Yudof or a regent, so I don’t pretend to promise you that the following suggestions qualify as expert advice, but hey, it’s a free paper, so you get what you pay for.

In an attempt to force the student body to take more courses, the University now plans to raise the bar for full-time status from 12 credits to 13. But if the University wants students to enroll in more classes and, thereby, graduate faster, it has to make us want to take more credits.

Some might suggest the money students save through shorter college careers should be motivation enough. But with only 49 percent of students graduating in five or fewer years, evidently it isn’t. Some new form of motivation must be found – instead of simply raising the level of minimum credits again.

I suggest the University look into possible reward programs. The first of these is the proposal currently being discussed, effectively establishing a base load of 13 credits the student pays for, while every credit after that is free. The University currently offers every credit after 12 at half price to the student, but it is one of the few schools in the region that does so. Of the Big Ten schools, only Michigan State and the University charge for credits taken past 12. At every other university, those excess credits are free.

The University could further reward those who regularly take a heavy class load by offering them earlier registration periods. This idea might allay the frustrations of students who often feel they always get stuck with unfair registration appointments. With this policy in place, students will feel they are more in control of when they get to register. Then, if a student has a bad registration time, it will be largely a result of his or her own personal choice.

Should the University succeed in getting us to register for more courses, it could further help its cause by empowering us to navigate and monitor our progress. For example, the “benchmark” system presently utilized at the University of Iowa allows students two checkpoints per year where they can monitor their progress towards graduation. The goals are set when students first enroll at the university and can be changed during the student’s tenure. Then, if the student is not able to obtain a class deemed necessary for them to adhere to their benchmark, the university picks up the tuition for the course.

One potential problem of this plan is most college students switch majors. Very few students enroll in a university select a major and follow it through to the end without ever changing their minds. Most vacillate between several majors before finally deciding on one.

A way to solve this problem and help out graduation rates in general might be to allow students the ability to move about and take different classes in different major fields (without having to drop back and enroll in some remedial 1000-level courses). Now I am not suggesting students outside of a program be allowed to register for courses before those who are in the school. After all, you chose to enroll in a particular school for a reason, right?

Nor am I suggesting once students hit their third year that the world be their candy store and they should be able to enroll in any classes they want. I do suggest, however, the University allow free movement and registration within similar fields. For example, English majors in journalism classes, computer science majors in math classes and a regulated movement within the engineering fields.

Considering how employers often want someone with a degree in one of three different fields to fill a position, it makes sense students should be allowed more latitude to attain such variable experience in University courses.

My last suggestion is my most simplistic and unoriginal. If the University wants us to graduate more quickly, it should cut out the classes that needlessly bog us down. I propose the University cut the liberal arts mandatory language program to a single semester and eliminate the Graduation Proficiency Test.

Learning a second language certainly is an important part of a well-rounded education. But do we really need four semesters of a mandatory class that meets five days per week, making it extremely difficult to register for other needed classes? The program has to go or at least be downsized. True, we would have much less foreign language knowledge to forget after we graduate, but it is just folly to worry about graduation rates and yet keep a non-recorded test that can hold a senior back who would otherwise graduate.

The suggestions listed above are simply that, suggestions. They are not the embodiment of the ideas of the regents or Yudof. They are simply the ramblings of a University student who’s been through the trials and tribulations of education at this school. I’m just looking to make the entire process flow a little bit smoother for current and future students.

In the end, these important decisions will be made by people with far more authority than a loudmouth such as myself. I look forward to seeing what they decide to do, and how it will affect all of us – including me when I return next year. But, hey, it’s only my sixth.


Chris Schafer’s column appears alternate Thursdays.
He welcomes
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