Iowa ‘bench mark’ system raises graduation rates

by Justin Ware

The University could be looking to mirror the plans of other Big Ten institutions to jump-start its ailing graduation rates.

The University of Iowa faced the same problems of lower-than-average four- and six-year graduation rates five years ago. Since then, Iowa has changed advising procedures and increased graduation rates.

“I don’t figure we are doing much that is different than anywhere else,” said Dr. Lola Lopes, associate provost for undergraduate education at Iowa.

Iowa introduced a system of “bench marks” for its students in 1997 after the university found its four-year graduation rates were hovering around 30 percent.

The bench marks are biannual checkpoints allowing students to monitor their progress toward graduating on time. These goals are set when the student arrives at the university and can be changed at any point throughout the student’s education.

If a student follows the system and does not receive the classes necessary to graduate on time, Iowa will pay the tuition of those classes.

“We’ve never had to pay,” Lopes said.

Since introducing the “bench marks,” Iowa’s four-year graduation rates increased to 37 percent this year, and six-year rates went from approximately 50 percent to just under 65 percent.

With the University’s six-year graduation rate at 51 percent in 2000, officials have been discussing policy changes to help students move through the system more quickly.

“It’s certainly an interesting idea,” College of Education and Human Development Dean Steve Yussen said of Iowa’s bench mark system.

Yussen and other deans held a meeting Wednesday morning to discuss developing a policy similar to Iowa’s.

“What we’re trying to do is describe for students what they need to do in order to graduate in four years,” Yussen said.

He said the plan would be for all incoming students, including those who transfer to the University as a junior or senior.

Minnesota Student Association President Dan Kelly – also a member of The Minnesota Daily’s Board of Directors – said he met earlier this week with Craig Swan, vice provost for undergraduate education, to discuss possible steps for improving graduation rates.

Kelly said the idea of using bench marks was brought up.

“I think it’s a good thing, and it’s moving in the right direction,” Kelly said.

The MSA president said he felt the talk demonstrated University officials are looking for ways to help students and not dictate what they do.

“He’s open to hearing our ideas, but I think he’s still for credit minimums,” Kelly said.

Credit minimums are part of a proposed University plan requiring students to enroll in a minimum of 13 semester credits unless they have written permission from their college.

Dr. Lopes said she likes the plan Iowa is using because she said it provides students with flexibility.

“We don’t try to force the plan on students,” Lopes said.

But she did say students are highly encouraged to complete a bench mark program.

Lopes said the difference between the lives of students at a commuter campus such as the University and small campuses located in small towns, such as the University of Iowa, can have significant effects on graduation rates. Commuting students tend to have other commitments that make it difficult to attend school full time.

“People who are working affect graduation rates,” Lopes said.