University to sharpen student retention rates

The 90-credit issue: Only 78 percent of students stay through their third year.

Evelina Smirnitskaya

During his second year of college, Ben Yela, 21, began to doubt his place at the University of Minnesota.

Yela, a theater major, left the University in fall 2009 as he said he was ready to get out and “experience life.”

His case is not unique. Currently, 78 percent of students remain at the University through their third year and leave without graduating, something administrators have referred to as the “90 credit problem.”

Out of that 78 percent, only 47 percent graduate on time. The University’s goal is to raise the four-year graduation rate for students who enrolled in 2008 to 60 percent.

Students drop out for many reasons. Some leave for lack of money, some have trouble keeping up with the curriculum and others decide they are looking for something else entirely.

Daniel Gadaskin, 23, knew the University was not for him after his first semester but didn’t drop out until his junior year in fall 2008.

“I didn’t want to work a crummy job, so I stayed in school,” Gadaskin said.

Other students enter the University unsure of what they would like to pursue, gathering credits without a direction.

Yela thinks that was part of the problem for him.

“I was stuck in a place where I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Lack of direction leads to excess credits and decreases the probability of graduation, said professor Cathrine Wambach, former chairwoman of the University’s Senate Committee on Educational Policy.

Last year the University opened the Center for Academic Planning and Exploration, which is meant to help students figure out their major.

Lingering at the University can become a monetary drain on students, as some financial aid, such as the Minnesota State Grant, is unavailable after a student completes more than the equivalent of nine full semesters.

University administrators have discussed the problem of student retention for a number of years. According to Chris Kearns, assistant dean at the College of Liberal Arts, the highest drop-out rate is in the first year, but attrition happens at every level. This is true for colleges across the country.

The University has a number of tools and programs in place to track patterns in student progress. There is a Mid-Term Alerts System meant to help students in 1000-level courses stay on track.

The required 13-credit policy for full-time enrollment has helped students graduate on time, Wambach said. However, most of the programs are geared toward first-year students.

Students of different grade levels are divided on their reasons for leaving. Most first year students who leave the University transfer to different schools, while students who drop out past their second year often leave to work, Wambach said.

Many juniors and seniors plan to eventually come back, but once they leave it becomes less likely.

“You can’t get people to graduate if they aren’t here,” Wambach said.

Neither Yela nor Gadaskin, who are both working, think it is likely they will re-enroll at the University.

But other students, like Ben Frank, 26, decide to return.

Frank was last enrolled at the University in the fall of 2006. He left in his ninth semester to work full time.

Aside from needing time away from school for personal reasons, Frank said he simply wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, despite having a major in urban studies.

“I wasn’t utilizing resources that were there for me,” Frank said.