U’s low graduation rate is improving

Jim Martyka

University administrators emphasized the importance of increasing graduation rates when they developed the University 2000 plan three years ago. Because the University is such an important contributor to the future of Minnesota, administrators say improved graduation rates must be a long-term goal for the school.
As a result, administrators decided the University must drastically increase the number of five-year graduations, and University President Nils Hasselmo incorporated the goal into his U2000 plan.
Today, even more emphasis is being placed on improving the numbers because the issue has become a priority nationwide. Currently, the University has a lower graduation rate than any other Big Ten school.
Despite the University’s current low graduation rating, administrators said this is one piece of U2000 that is going as planned.
Five-year graduation rates, a vital piece of the U2000 plan, have increased over the last few years.
Recent numbers show that students who entered the University in fall 1991, not including General College, had a graduation rate of 45.4 percent, up nearly 7 percent from students entering three years earlier. These statistics are tracked by following a cohort of incoming freshmen and watching how many of that group graduate in five years. The U2000 goal would bump this number up to 50 percent.
One of the reasons behind the push to improve graduation rates is pressure from not only other universities, but also organizations that rate universities as a whole.
Because of amendments in 1992 to the Higher Education Act, federal and state legislation was passed that would require set graduate rate standards for colleges.
The Minnesota Higher Education Coordinating Board suggested a 40 percent, six-year graduation rate for students entering baccalaureate programs in Minnesota.
Also, graduation rates are a small but important factor when ranking the overall quality of a university.
Administrators said they wanted to increase graduation rates to help more students graduate in general.
“If you stay a student long enough, you’re more unlikely to graduate because something will happen,” said Marvin Marshak, senior vice president for Academic Affairs. Some of these include marriage, other jobs and children, he said. “All of this sucks them out of the institution, so they wind up not graduating.”
Marshak said that ensuring student graduation is vital to the school “because the social and economic future of the state depends on the University of Minnesota educating and graduating qualified people who can provide the social, political and economic leadership that we need.”
A few years ago, University administrators began closely observing four, five and six-year graduation rates. To put the goal of increasing these rates in a type of framework, administrators focused on what percent were graduating in five years. Other universities also measure in terms of five-year graduation rates.
The original U2000 plan aimed to “graduate in five years at least half of all freshmen entering (the University) in 1996 and later, as compared with 39 percent of freshmen system-wide who entered in 1987.”
It also called to improve the graduation rates of minority students by 50 percent. By 2000, administrators hope that 33 percent of minority students will graduate in five years. The latest statistics show that 27.9 percent of minorities entering the school in 1991 graduated in five years. According to the administration, this goal is also on track.
Of 2,412 total students who entered in fall 1991, 1,098 graduated by last fall, a rate of 45.5 percent. Statistics show that about 300 of the remaining students were still enrolled. Most of the rest were no longer enrolled.
But statistics essentially show that administrators are close to their goal for the five-year rates, which is at least one part of the U2000 plan administrators said they are optimistic.
University administration has also devoted much time and work to the five-year graduation rate.
Despite what administrators call a general increase in the quality of the students compared to years ago, the rates have also increased because of efforts to make five-year graduation a norm among students.
“If you create a climate on your campus where you have better students, those students set a peer group norm which is more attuned toward graduation,” said Marshak. “They will help pull along those students who might not have graduated if they had been in a different peer group.”
Administrators said they have achieved this climate by encouraging students to live on campus their first year, lowering class sizes and improving advising for all students.
The Board of Regents also installed a four-year graduation guarantee program last summer.
With the guarantee, students fill out a detailed outline of classes that they will take over their four years, averaging 15 credits per quarter. If a student can’t get into a class, a new section will be opened or they will be given first priority in the next quarter.
Also, if students who follow this plan can’t graduate in four years, the University will pay their tuition.
But Hasselmo said this guarantee is only an option students have. He said they offered the four-year guarantee for students who wanted to finish college more quickly.
This, however, does not affect the U2000 goal of 50 percent graduating in five years, Hasselmo said.
“Nationally, they talk in almost only a five-year graduation rate anymore,” he said. “That’s why we formulated a target in terms of a five-year graduation rate rather than a four-year graduation.”
Despite the increase in five-year graduation rates, people question why the number is below 50 percent in the first place.
Administrators said this does not necessarily concern them.
“The University is a unique institution,” said Marshak. “There are reasons why we are different.”
Stephen DesJardins, a senior analyst at the University, said people must consider other factors for an accurate depiction. “If you just look at numbers, you’re not taking into consideration all the things that have an effect,” he said.
Among those factors, DesJardins said, are characteristics of the students, university missions, average course loads and tuition rates.
Graduation rates are also reflective of the size and location of the university, administrators said. For example, if a student attends a large college in a big city, more activities can distract a student from schoolwork. However, if the same student attends a smaller school in a small town, there will be fewer distractions.
University students also find themselves involved in activities other than school.
Many students hold jobs or internships or involve themselves in other activities which prevent them from graduating in five years.
“We realize that we have students who have to work, we have students who have families, we have, generally, some older undergraduates. We don’t serve just 18 to 22-year-olds who can come and spend full time,” said Hasselmo. “We have to allow for that, but we believe we should try to move to 50 percent who graduate in five years.”
Marshak agrees. Though increasing these rates are important to the University, he said, the University is not pushing these students.
“Rather than making the sharp transition from college to life, some students sort of slide into life, which I think for some is actually probably a preferable situation,” he said.