U graduation rates are on the upswing

by Emily Dalnodar

Among the many reasons students take college courses, graduation isn’t always on the top of that list.
“I’ll be here forever,” said Jon Padden, a University Institute of Technology sophomore pursuing degrees in math, computer science and music. “But it’s not really a goal of mine to get a degree.”
The University has historically reported lower graduation rates than the rest of the country. But a recent trend of nationally slipping graduation rates is narrowing the gap, as University numbers continue to rise.
ACT Inc., best known for its college admissions testing programs, released a national report finding only 52.1 percent of college students in four-year public and private institutions graduate five years after high school. At just the four-year public institutions the rate is even lower: 42.9 percent.
While graduation rates at the University defy the national trend and are on the rise, the numbers still fall short of national levels. Last year 39.8 percent of University students graduated five years after leaving high school. This is up from 36 percent in 1997 and 33.8 percent in 1996.
“Our graduation rates have always been historically low,” said Tom Gilson, a senior analyst at the University institutional research and reporting.
University administrators have actively combatted the low figures since 1982, when researchers started tracking graduation and dropout rates. The rest of the country now faces the same problem.
Kelley Hayden, an ACT spokesman, said the percentage of students who get a bachelor’s degree within five years of leaving high school has declined steadily over the years at public and private institutions.
“But if you look at institutions with more stringent requirements, they have a much higher percentage of students who graduate each year than those that are wide open,” he said.
University officials implemented tougher application requirements as part of their overall campaign to boost graduation rates.
“The more prepared people are coming in — the higher the grades and test scores — the better,” said Ron Matross, a senior analyst in research and reporting. “So we have been gradually raising the degree of preparation or academic caliber of the incoming freshman.”
In 1991, University admissions got tougher when applicants had to meet core English and math requirements before consideration.
Ninety-eight percent of the fall 1998 freshman met all of the University’s high school requirements, said Wayne Sigler, University admissions director. In 1975, only 17 percent of high school students would’ve met those same requirements.
“It’s a signal to the students considering Minnesota of the courses in high school and the preparation we require,” Sigler said.
The methods might improve University standings, but students who can’t get into a four-year institution due to unfulfilled high school requirements could face more problems down the road.
Of recent high school graduates who pursue higher education, only 40 percent go into four-year colleges, Hayden said. Most of the 60 percent going to two-year colleges say they intend to continue on in four-year institutions, but that’s not happening.
“The economy has something to do with it too, probably,” Hayden said. “The economy is very good, so there are more jobs available. Many students are choosing to work instead of pursuing a degree full-time.
“Plus, the cost of education keeps rising each year so some people choose to work to avoid building up a huge debt load,” Hayden said.
Those who do transfer to a four-year program usually take much longer to graduate. A student starting at a four-year college is seven times more likely to graduate within five years than if the student had transferred from a two-year college, Hayden said.
Some, like Padden, don’t know if they will ever graduate and aren’t sure they want to. Padden prefers, instead, to take interesting classes and work 20 to 30 hours a week. He’s even considered working full-time and taking only one class each term.
When he started his first couple years at the University, he was a full-time student living in the dorms, but student loans caused too much financial stress.
Better financial aid is the key to curbing part-time student syndrome, Hayden said. Though, even financial aid can’t override closed classes which stand between graduation and an extra semester.
“The University needs to create more opportunities for students to take general education classes, because we all need to take them,” said Sara Barnes, a medical technology senior.
Barnes shares her frustrations with many students who linger on campus one or two extra quarters because much-needed classes just aren’t available.
“We, at the University, have been trying to increase required course class availability so students can graduate on time,” Gilson said. “We’re encouraging students to take heavier course loads so they can graduate sooner.
But semester conversion might actually stand in the way of increasing required course availability. While a goal of the conversion is prompting students to carry weightier course loads, it also cuts off some flexibility.
The online semester transition handbook advises students that “you will have fewer opportunities to select courses, and there will be fewer courses to choose from, so you will need to make the most of each course choice.”
Kathleen Spieker, a College of Biological Sciences freshman, said the semester conversion worries her. She said the likelihood of getting out of the University in four years doesn’t seem too promising with semester conversion impeding her path.
While this might initially seem troublesome, the semester system might eventually be an aid, Gilson said.
“In the long term we hope the academic intensity of the students will increase a bit. Students who graduate on time naturally take a larger course load instead of working and doing other things. If we have a culture of people who take a full credit load and make studying a full priority, then we will have improved graduation rates,” Gilson said.