Graduation rate growth tops Big Ten

The University’s rate has increased 14 percent over the past decade.

by Conor Shine

Kaia Hoium is going to graduate on time.
The junior in computer science has navigated a change in major and is now cramming courses into her schedule âÄî sheâÄôs taking 18 credits this semester âÄî in order to finish her degree in four years.
âÄúItâÄôs tough, but IâÄôm going to graduate on time,âÄù she said. âÄúI canâÄôt afford to stay for another semester.âÄù
University of Minnesota officials have high hopes for Hoium and her peers in the class of 2012.
While graduation rates have stagnated around the country over the past decade, the University has defied this trend. It has increased its graduation rate 12 percent between 2003 and 2008 âÄî the sixth biggest gain of any public research institution in the country and the largest of any school in the Big Ten.
According to data released this week by the Chronicle of Higher Education, about one-third of the nearly 1,400 four-year colleges surveyed reported declines in their six-year graduation rates.
The rate in Minnesota has continued to increase in 2010, with half of all students finishing in four years, and 70 percent done in six.
The UniversityâÄôs goal is to graduate 60 percent of students who entered in 2008 in four years, a higher number than ever before, said Dean of Undergraduate Education Robert McMaster. Achieving a 10 percent increase in just two years will be difficult, he said, but early data on student retention is encouraging and tools are in place to meet the target.
Despite seeing the greatest growth, the University still trails many Big Ten schools including the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which both have six-year graduation rates that top 80 percent.
Junior Hillary Handler will not be part of the graduating class of 2012. Now a nursing student, Handler said she was unsure of what she wanted to study and waited until her sophomore year to apply to the program.
HandlerâÄôs degree requirements mean she wonâÄôt be finished until 2013, five years after entering the University. But Handler says sheâÄôs not concerned about taking an extra year.
While graduating in four years from more structured programs like nursing and engineering can be challenging, McMaster said itâÄôs possible if students plan their courses in advance and work with advisers.
Higher education professor Darwin Hendel said schools can increase their rates through more selective admissions and by better supporting students. Making sure courses are available and encouraging students to take a full credit load creates a culture where graduating in four years is the norm, he said.
Only charging students for their first 13 credits has been a big factor in increasing timely graduations, McMaster said, because students understand they save money by taking more courses and finishing school faster.
âÄúBy staying here into a fifth or sixth year, students are borrowing a lot more money and losing years of employment,âÄù he said.
Part of the drastic increase in graduations can be attributed to a low starting point âÄî only 15 percent of students graduated in four years in 1991 âÄî but Hendel said itâÄôs clear the issue has become more of a priority for administrators.
McMaster said he hopes the University can keep inching its rates up until 80 percent of all students graduate within six years, putting the school on par with many of its Big Ten peers.
âÄúThere are always going to be reasons students donâÄôt graduate,âÄù he said. âÄúAt a large public university like this, I think if you can get between 80 and 85 percent, youâÄôre doing really well.âÄù