U blames student employment for low six-year graduation rate

Josh Linehan

Rachel Vetter works as a government claims representative at Health East. She has spent seven years to come within 30 credits of her degree in speech-communication from the University.

She did data entry work for Dayton Hudson, supervised the store floor at a B. Dalton and entered data and processed insurance claims for Aspen Medical Group. She spent two years earning an associates degree from Century Community and Technical College, then another frustrating year trying to get those credits transferred.

And Rachel Vetter is not alone. Rachel Vetter is a trend, one the University spends a lot of time trying to understand.

Recent studies show University of Minnesota students to be nationwide high-water marks of a trend toward undergraduates working through college.

Those numbers – coupled with a dismal 51 percent six-year graduation rate – convince administrators and faculty that University students simply work too much to finish college. And they might be right.

The combination of a metropolitan campus, a high percentage of in-state students, the rising cost of public education and good old-fashioned Midwestern work ethic creates a campus “culture of work” unparalleled at nearly any institution.

A recent survey – commissioned by the Task Force on Undergraduate Retention and Graduation – of students who stopped registering at the University following the spring 2000 semester shows a campus split between work and school.

Forty-seven percent of dropouts rated the need to work more and earn money for school “very important” or “extremely important” – far and away the most-cited reason. Students ranked conflicts between work and school second.

Newly appointed Vice President for Student Life Robert Jones said he worries about the prevalence of this culture of work.

“We believe a significant portion of the college experience occurs outside of the classroom. Working full time and going to school provides students with little time to be involved with campus life. And that is reflected in how people feel about their undergraduate experience,” Jones said.

Enter Rachel Vetter.

“There is no way I could have afforded to go full time. It just wasn’t an option. And I do feel like I missed out on the college experience. I didn’t live in the dorms, and right after class I’d go to work,” Vetter said.

The statistics show an increasing number of undergraduates agreeing with Vetter.

According to voluntary surveys of incoming freshmen, University students expect to rely on a part-time job to pay for school – 21 percent more than the average student at four-year public institutions nationwide. Those studies also find University students worked more in high school and worry more about financing an education.

In addition, 78 percent of University students expect to work in the summer, compared to 59 percent nationally. At the University, nearly twice the national average expect to dip into savings from summer employment to pay tuition bills.

But the main problem is not students who expect to work. According to a Cooperative Institutional Research Program survey, only 3.6 percent of incoming University freshmen envisioned working full time while attending school. But a Boynton Health Service annual report shows more than double that figure doing so. It also shows 36.4 percent working more than 20 hours per week.

It shows a trap, one Vetter and countless others like her couldn’t escape.

When she arrived at the University in fall 1994, Vetter didn’t expect to work much. Her first job came at 17, when she was a junior at St. Paul’s Harding High School, working eight to 12 hours per week for extra cash.

“I planned on working about 12 hours a week when I started,” Vetter said. “But as soon as I got the first bill I knew that wasn’t going to work. I sat down with my parents and we both decided they couldn’t afford it. So I doubled my workload. And because I did that, I had to cut my school load in half.”

Not sure what major to declare, Vetter decided to transfer for two years rather than continue taking general requirements. But a need for health insurance kept her employed full time while earning a two-year degree. By the time she came back to the University, her course was set.

“I thought about taking loans. I had a small scholarship, but that was gone right away. And I’m not comfortable with loans. I’m not comfortable being in debt,” Vetter said. A large loan debt also would not have fit into her lifestyle.

“If I had those loans I wouldn’t have a car or be able to do anything I wanted to do. Plus, the interest is ridiculous and you can’t ever predict what school will cost, so you almost have to have a job,” she said.

Indeed, with increasing lifestyle expenses and a 13.8 percent tuition and fees hike, the University culture of work shows no signs of abating.

Peter Zetterburg, director of Institutional Research & Reporting at the University, said the culture of work has entrenched itself firmly at the University and is being exacerbated by recent factors.

“I think students work more on the Twin Cities campus than other students for two reasons,” Zetterburg said. “One, the campus has always encouraged it. And the other factor is that there are greater opportunities for good work when compared with places like Madison or Iowa City.”

The University advocates part-time work. A Board of Regents policy adopted in summer 1981 mandates almost all jobs on campus be reserved for students. The policy strives for “employment opportunities (that) support students’ school-related expenses and promote academic and career growth.”

This policy, coupled with the 1990s boom economy, left students with great opportunities in the working world. Those jobs allowed undergraduates to enjoy many lifestyle choices such as cellular phones and automobiles while in college.

But it might have also cost many of them a diploma.

The last meeting of the Council of Undergraduate Deans consisted almost entirely of a graduation and retention subcommittee report devoted to uncovering what the University and colleges can do to get students their degrees.

The University is currently the only Big Ten institution to under-perform its own predicted six-year graduation rate. Extended undergraduate studies tax an institution’s resources such as advising and adjunct faculty. Students who stretch college might sacrifice lifetime earning potential. And students who take longer are less likely to finish at all, according to IRR.

University students’ economic backgrounds do not differ greatly from national statistics, yet more of them work, clock more hours and take longer to graduate.

Students who work through school gain experience but also risk their education, said Vice Provost Craig Swan.

“You can’t graduate if you don’t stay, and the other thing you really need is to be a full-time student,” he said.

Zetterburg agreed, saying the risk of not graduating should persuade students to try to finish in four years.

“It’s fine if students want to work to maintain a lifestyle, but they have to be aware of the consequences. And the consequence is you risk not graduating on time, which will always cost you more in the long run, and you’re losing income you can’t ever get back. But a lot of freshmen just don’t make the obvious connection between carrying 15 credits a semester and graduating on time,” he said.

The University embraces this position institution-wide, offering discounted tuition for full-time students. Every credit taken over 12 is offered at half price. In addition, Jones said the University is taking social steps to stem the tide of over-employment.

“The University bears some responsibility as far as setting clear expectations for students and helping them meet those expectations,” he said. “Initiatives like convocation and freshmen seminars are designed with that in mind and attempt to foster a sense of connectedness on campus.”

But with a tuition increase in the fall and an already established hard-working student base, the University trend toward employment through school will not change soon.

“A campus culture is hard to change,” Zetterburg said. “Freshmen come here and they expect to graduate in four years, but then they look at the sophomores and see them working more. And do you know where they got that from? The sophomores before them.”

Meanwhile, students like Rachel Vetter – who’ll be back at the University part-time in the fall – keep working toward a degree, with a different outlook on attending college.

“I certainly still don’t see it as the best years of my life,” Vetter said. “I still live with my parents. I have paid off my car. But tuition for summer school was due today, and I haven’t paid it yet, because I can’t afford it.”


Josh Linehan is The Minnesota Daily’s managing editor and welcomes comments at [email protected]