U looks to up grad rates

by Angela Gray

Getting students into college with fancy brochures and flashy guided tours around campus is one thing, but getting them out is another.

Sometimes colleges that seem to be similar have very different graduation rates.

The main campuses of Pennsylvania State University and the University of Minnesota have comparable tuition price tags, SAT scores and percentages of students from low-income backgrounds.

Yet statistically, Penn State graduates more than 80 percent of its seniors each year, while the University of Minnesota graduates less than half, according to a University of Minnesota Web site.

Officials are targeting obstacles to students receiving diplomas and foresee an improvement, although the University of Minnesota ranks lower than its peers in graduation rates,

Craig Swan, University of Minnesota vice provost for undergraduate education, said students from Penn State generally have a stronger academic background than University of Minnesota students.

“Students from the University (of Minnesota) have a more comparable academic background with schools like Michigan, Ohio, Purdue, Iowa and Indiana,” he said.

But the University of Minnesota still is lagging behind those schools in graduation rates, Swan said.

The lower graduation rates result from a combination of things, he said.

“There have been permissive attitudes and feelings that being on campus and taking a course or two were good enough,” he said.

Swan said University of Minnesota staff members and students have not always been oriented and focused on graduating students in a timely fashion.

“It’s a matter of expectations,” he said. “Expectations are key.”

He said things the University of Minnesota needs to work on are making sure degree requirements are simple and straightforward.

“We don’t want it to be so complicated you need a Ph.D. just to figure out how to get a bachelor’s degree,” Swan said.

He said he also believes there needs to be some flexibility with degree requirements.

“Sometimes just a little slip and a student can be pushed back a year; I don’t believe that is right,” he said.

There are problems with advising and students changing their majors. Swan said the University of Minnesota needs to focus on making sure students are in the best-fitting major.

Ryan Tvenge, a fifth-year graphic design major, said switching majors set him back.

“I think it was partially the advisers to blame and partially access to the program,” he said.

Laura Hustead, a junior nursing major, said she switched her major and it will take her six years to graduate.

“I don’t mind taking longer, obviously people want to get out of college and make money, but I am having fun right now,” she said.

Sometimes, when students come in to the University of Minnesota faster than they go out, the revolving doors stop.

Swan said the University of Minnesota has made changes to improve graduation rates.

“With the old system, the University (of Minnesota) had required students to pay for all their credits and now each credit taken after the required 13 (for full-time status) is free.

“This 13-credit system has dramatically changed in regards to student course-taking,” he said. “It keeps students on track to graduation.”

He said the University of Minnesota also has a Four Year Graduation Guarantee for Undergraduate Students program that requires a mutual responsibility from students and the University of Minnesota.

“Students commit to full-time status and if we can’t find courses towards your degree, your tuition is free,” he said.

Swan said the University of Minnesota puts money into advising and offers resources for course access and assistance to students on their paths to graduating.

There are a lot of college incentive programs that serve as good examples for the University of Minnesota, he said.

“Other schools have policies that state after students take 150 credits, they pay nonresidential tuition,” he said. “The University of Texas offers $500 to students who graduate in four years.”

The percentage of students at the University of Minnesota who complete 30 credits their first year, 60 credits by the end of their second year and 90 credits by the end of their third year have also increased, he said.

Swan said the University of Minnesota has publicly stated goals of a 50-percent graduation rate for four years, and a 75-percent graduation rate for six years.

“I really believe we are on track to meeting those goals,” he said.

John Kellogg, an analyst for the Office of Institutional Research and Reporting, said, “Tracking enrollment numbers is easy, but tracking what happens to individual students over six years is much more difficult.”

Kellogg said there will be an updated report on graduation rates for the 2004-2005 school year released in early January.

“The results will most likely show an overall improvement in graduation rates,” he said.

Swan said, “In the report, the new four- and six-year graduation rates will show healthy increases,” he said. “We are certainly making progress, but we still have a ways to go.”