U urges students to alter lifestyles, graduate on time

by Anne Preller

Imagine a company turning out 51 percent of its product successfully. The company might struggle to break even and could survive only if its profit margin exceeded its expenses.

Though the University is not a normal company, its 51 percent six-year graduation rate concerns administration and faculty, while the low rate reflects poorly on the institution’s national status and reputation.

Craig Swan, vice provost of undergraduate programs, and Linda Ellinger, assistant vice provost in the student development office, have spent months compiling a report of graduation and retention rates to understand why students take so long to graduate.

“We shouldn’t be at the bottom of every group of schools we look at,” said Jerry Rinehart, director of Carlson School of Management undergraduate programs. “I think there’s something going on that needs to be addressed.”

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the six-year graduation rate rests at 75.3 percent, the University of Iowa graduates 63.1 percent of undergraduate students after six years and Ohio State has a 55 percent six-year graduation rate. The University of California-Los Angeles reports a 73 percent five-year graduation rate and the University of Washington boasts a 72 percent six-year graduation rate.

Peter Zetterberg, director of University Institutional Research & Reporting, said the national average six-year graduation rate is about 50 percent.

But where do those other 49 percent go?

“Probably about 45 percent of freshmen who begin on the Twin Cities campus do not finish on the Twin Cities campus. Some drop out of school entirely, some transfer somewhere else, some may come back 10 years from now,” Zetterberg said.

Others graduate in seven or eight years, but the University doesn’t track graduation rates after eight years.

The institution didn’t clearly express its graduation expectations in the past and needs to do so now to raise graduation rates, Ellinger said: “I think there were understated expectations.”

Richard Skaggs, interim dean of academic programs, said the expectations have created a culture where graduation in four or five years is not a high priority.

“I am quite sure it took some time to establish that particular culture, if you wish, and I am quite sure it will take some time to change it,” Skaggs said.

According to Swan and Ellinger’s graduation and retention draft, University students tend to work more, pay for more of their education and live closer to home than students attending other universities.

Only 16.4 percent of University students aren’t employed during the academic year. Fifty percent of students hold a part-time campus job, compared to 27 percent of students nationally.

The University has a history of students working heavily. According to a 1998 statistical analysis, in 1989 51 percent of students worked off-campus, and 83 percent worked while taking classes.

“Even 12 years ago our students worked heavily, probably not as heavily as they do now,” Ellinger said.

University deans discussed graduation and retention rates during a June meeting of the Council of Undergraduate Deans and concurred students need to re-prioritize to meet the new expectations.

“Other things that might be ‘blamed’ for low graduation rates, like students working, are behaviors that might very well be changed if the expectations are changed,” Skaggs said.

He said the benefits of taking student loans in lieu of working have not been clearly expressed. “It’s one of the things that needs to be looked at in conveying to students the short-term pain. It may be worth some short-term pain to get longer-term benefits,” he said.

Rinehart, a member of the deans council, agrees with Skaggs. “The value of the degree almost seems to get diluted, and it’s much easier for them to be, in some sense, to have their attention shift to the world of work, trying to make ends meet, supporting a lifestyle that they feel comfortable with,” he said.

Ellinger said she wants to increase communication with parents about the number of hours students work. She would like to advise students to work fewer than 15 hours per week.

The large off-campus student population is another factor deans said inhibits a timely graduation.

In fall 2000, part-time students totaled 22.6 percent of undergraduate enrollment.

“I think the evidence is pretty clear that being a true commuter has a tendency to take the students away from involvement on campus. It’s just hard to go back and forth. So I think it’s a risk factor. I think living at home is also a risk factor, although some people have to,” Skaggs said.

Rinehart said the University has a reputation for attracting students uncommitted to graduating in four to five years.

“High school students think of three categories. There are students who go to college, there are students who go to work and then there are students who go to the ‘U.’ And if they go to the ‘U,’ they are really doing neither,” Rinehart said.

The dean’s council has considered many strategies to increase the six-year graduation rate. Possibilities include e-mail reminders to students before registration, e-mails to students approaching 60 credits without a major declaration and interventions with students who have 110 credits and haven’t registered or haven’t filed for graduation.

Other suggestions include a policy requiring students to take 15 credits unless registered as part-time. Another policy would offer University admission for a fixed term (e.g., six years for entering freshmen). Students not graduating on time would be “dropped” from the University and need to re-apply.

Ellinger and Swan said such radical measures are only suggestions and would probably not become policy.

Deans council members will continue discussing such policies after the graduation and retention report is released in August.

Meanwhile, students not graduating in four or five years still use central services including financial aid, libraries, advisers and bookstores. “All of these things cost money and so … it is advantageous for the institution as well as the individual student to meet our expectation of graduating in four to five years,” Skaggs said.

Six-year graduation rates affect the institution’s national reputation and ranking, “and we want to have a good reputation,” Skaggs added.

Individual colleges also have a stake in the University’s overall graduation rate. Rinehart cited students who do not come to Carlson due to the University’s graduation rate as a whole.

“The Carlson school graduates 80 to 90 percent of its students in four to five years, but that’s not what people see,” Rinehart said. “They see the University of Minnesota first.”


Anne Preller welcomes comments at [email protected]