It’s the caliber of students, stupid

Saying the University struggles with its four-year graduation rate is akin to saying Mulder of “X-files” fame is paranoid. Although the observation may be true, it dramatically understates the nature of the problem.
Not surprisingly, Morrill Hall, in its ceaseless quest to improve both the image and quality of the University, is attempting to address the problem. Select incoming freshman were offered last fall a four-year graduation guarantee. Although the proposal deserves high marks for enhancing our public image, it does little to improve the quality of this venerable institution.
First, as a matter of conscience, I must disclose that I was unable to graduate in four years. Much to my parents’ chagrin, I’m one of those five-year super seniors doing his best to drag down graduation rates. Please allow me to emphasize that this column is not intended to assuage any feelings of marginalization, inferiority or guilt (at least not overtly). That said, back to business.
First, let me share with you the bad news. Currently, only 15 percent of University students graduate in four years. If you massage the numbers some and exclude General College, the statistics are slightly less dismal and the four-year graduation rate increases to 19 percent. To be sure, that’s not exactly a stellar performance.
To add insult to injury, our graduation rates are among the lowest in the country for schools in our peer group, and we perennially anchor the bottom of the Big 10 in this category (though that’s not too different from football or women’s basketball).
Now these graduation rates are important numbers. Colleges and universities are ranked on the basis of performance indicators like graduation rates. Admissions counselors like to assure bug-eyed high school seniors that, yes, it is indeed possible to graduate from a large public university. Similarly, parents like to believe they’ll someday see their child’s diploma before moving into a nursing home (or a poor house).
The administration certainly understands this. “Four-year graduation is absolutely essential to what we are doing,” said University President Nils Hasselmo last July to the Board of Regents. “We must remove barriers to students who want a more intense educational student experience,” he added.
So how then did the administration remove these barriers to students? By offering a pie-in-the-sky four-year graduation guarantee.
Here’s ostensibly how the program works: Incoming freshman who intend to major in popular programs, such as the life sciences, can make a compact with the University to graduate in four years. Among other things, the student pledges to enroll in and complete an average of 15 credits per quarter.
The University then guarantees access to classes needed to fulfill graduation requirements. If a student can’t get a seat in a composition class, for example, an extra section will be created or the student will be given priority next quarter. And if that doesn’t work and the student can’t complete his or her degree in four years, the University will absorb the cost of tuition.
I’m all for students graduating in four years, but this plan is sheer nonsense. It boasts mostly cosmetic changes, and it does little to ensure that students will make a quick entrance to and exit from college life.
For starters, not all students are welcome to participate. Majors such as nursing, engineering and computer science, some of which require more than 185 credits to complete, are excluded. A civil engineering and computer science major like myself is hardly helped by this program.
More problematic, this program doesn’t really address the underlying causes of low graduation rates. Sure the University promises to open additional sections in closed classes, but do administrators really believe that will raise graduation rates 10 or 20 percent? I don’t think so.
Surely this plan was an easy sell to the Board of Regents and the campus community, but we should demand more from the administration.
Instead of relying on hyperbolic promises like the four-year graduation guarantee, the University should continue raising admissions criteria. It isn’t glamorous and it sometimes isn’t popular, but it certainly does work. That’s the only responsible way to raise graduation rates.
For the third year in a row last fall, the incoming freshman class was the most prepared in several decades. Although that’s commendable, we still have a long way to go as the University continues to offer remedial classes. In an era of scarce resources, we allocate far too much money to programs that teach basic skills.
Excellence demands that tough choices be made.
It’s high time for the administration and the Board of Regents to acknowledge that we can no longer be all things to all people. Abysmal graduation rates won’t noticeably change until admissions standards are made more stringent. In my opinion, we can no longer allow the University to be viewed as the college of last resort for Minnesota high school seniors.
Without a doubt, the University must do a better job of moving students in and out the door. However, is a cute gimmick like the four-year guarantee really the best way to address woeful graduation rates? Probably not. Instead, we ought to simply raise admission criteria.

Greg Lauer’s column appears every Wednesday in the Daily.