U’s mission trumps graduation rate

A colleague of mine recently wrote a column bashing the University’s new four-year graduation guarantee. He argued that a better way to improve the University’s graduation rate is to raise admission standards. Now, anytime a University policy is criticized, I’m like a mother who sees her kid trapped under a car — I get this huge rush of adrenaline and must come to the rescue.
First of all, the graduation plan sounds fairly reasonable to me. Second, I don’t believe better and brighter students will increase graduation rates (although many administrators also think they will). Lastly, and most importantly, why are we placing so much importance on this arbitrary number anyway?
For starters, let’s look at these new wonder freshmen that administrators are always touting as “better prepared” than most of us were. I wish them well and offer congratulations on studying hard in high school and getting good grades — they obviously knew something I didn’t. (Like the periodic table of elements.)
But I don’t care how smart they are, they aren’t going to figure out a way to graduate in four years if the classes they need are not offered. If Political Science 1001 is filled, it’s filled — no matter what your GPA is.
Realizing this, University administrators started a limited four-year graduation guarantee in the fall. Features include a promise that if a required class is full, an additional section will be created or the student will have priority in registering for that class next time around. If the student follows all the rules and still can’t graduate in four years, the University will pick up the tab for the extra tuition. The program, originally focused on the College of Liberal Arts, was also recently expanded to include students from the Institute of Technology and the College of Natural Resources.
The plan is not perfect. A potential barrier is the fact that students must take at least 45 credits per year, which could mean a scary four classes per quarter, since many classes are only worth four credits.
Students must also stick to a rigid path and don’t really have the freedom to experiment with different majors or take courses just because they sound interesting. (But if you’re dead set on graduating in four years, you probably won’t be doing much exploring anyway.) Overall, the idea makes sense for some students.
The larger question is — what’s the big deal about graduating in four years?
What often gets lost in this debate over how to improve graduation rates is an examination of the purpose of this University. Call me naive, but I thought it was here to serve the needs of Minnesotans. And many of them are people who work part-time or full-time jobs (those oft-derided commuting students) who can only take one or two classes per quarter.
Read almost any story about how to improve the University and you’ll find people saying we need more students living on campus and less commuters who are dragging down these all-important graduation rates.
(You know, if administrators really want to cut down on the number of commuters, they could do something sneaky like make it really hard to get to campus, perhaps by eliminating the Route 52 buses. But they wouldn’t do something as cruel as that, would they?)
There are several incentives for churning out students quickly. One is that many legislators want the University to run more like a business, and they’re willing to subsidize a down-and-dirty education, but not willing to help foot the bill while we do the old “find ourselves” routine.
For instance, in 1995 Rep. Tony Kinkel, DFL-Park Rapids, introduced a bill that would have charged out-of-state tuition to students who have taken more than 48 credits beyond the number required for graduation.
“At some point, the state taxpayers aren’t going to keep subsidizing procrastinators,” he said at the time. Luckily, this asinine piece of legislation never made it into law.
Another factor is that graduation rates are one of the ways colleges and universities are ranked. High school seniors browse college guides that tell them things about the schools, such as the quality of student life, the majors offered and the graduation rate.
But wouldn’t it be refreshing if administrators didn’t buckle under the pressure of rankings? And wouldn’t it be neat if the people who rank schools didn’t do so with deceiving numbers like graduation rates?
Even some books that use these rankings say it’s not really all that relevant. For example, the guide “Peterson’s Four-Year Colleges ’97” (which is about three times the size of the Minneapolis phone book) says:
“Students should not have to march on to graduation in four years if they have interests, skills, and needs that are not acknowledged by a traditional degree program. New types of students are enrolling, and the location of learning has moved beyond the campus — to the home, the workplace, and around the world. In recognition of this trend, an effective college designs programs that meet new patterns and creates ways to both extend and encourage diversity on the campus.”
Then it goes on to define schools by criteria including graduation rates. Go figure.
It would make a lot more sense to judge schools not on how many people graduate in four years, but on how easy or difficult it is to do so. They should try a ranking like, “Odds that you can graduate in four years if you try: nil, fair, good, excellent.”
Even members of the Board of Regents realize this. When administrators presented the four-year graduation guarantee proposal to the board in July, it was not met with open arms all around.
Regent Wendell Anderson said students from wealthy families who graduate in four years aren’t as attractive to employers as students who take longer to finish school but who do it through their own hard work.
“Why do we permit ourself to be judged by that kind of a concept?” Anderson asked at the time. “The University should never permit itself to be measured by the percentage of undergraduates who complete their work after four years.”
Regent Julie Bleyhl said that with rising tuition, more students need to work to earn money, and getting people through the University in four years shouldn’t be a goal.
But University President Nils Hasselmo, who also advocates higher admission standards, told them that like it or not, the school will be judged by this criterion and it is “absolutely essential” that the institution have a better graduation rate.
“We must remove barriers to students who want a more intense educational experience,” he added.
I couldn’t agree more. Remove the barriers (and improve the advising system, while you’re at it). But in doing so, why exclude students who want to take some time to explore different areas, participate in internships or those who have to work to support themselves?
Personally, I am one of the statistical deadbeats. I will graduate after being here six years — but technically it’s only five years worth of classes because I’ve taken three quarters off for internships. I’m hopeful that this real-world experience (along with my winning personality) will mean more to employers than a rushed diploma.
It seems legislators and administrators need a reminder about what this institution is supposed to be doing. Maybe they should refer to the University’s mission statement:
“The University of Minnesota, founded in the belief that all people are enriched by understanding, is dedicated to the advancement of learning and the search for truth; to the sharing of this knowledge through education for a diverse community; and to the application of this knowledge to benefit the people of the state, the nation and the world.”
Oddly enough, there’s no mention anywhere of elitism in the name of graduation rates. It’s time to get back to basics.

Kris Henry’s column appears in the Daily every Thursday. She welcomes comments via e-mail at [email protected]
Letters to the editor may be sent to [email protected]