U graduation report overlooks fundamentals

Friday’s graduation and retention report from the Council of Undergraduate Deans was a much-needed infusion of data into a subject that has inflamed debate at the University in recent weeks. It refutes several popular explanations for the University’s low graduation rate: the school’s urban setting, its high number of students living off campus, the “Midwest factor” that produces independent students, and the theory that students are studying abroad and doing extended research projects rather than graduating. It also describes the complicated role student employment plays and demonstrates that the lifestyle of the working student does not necessarily harm or help the student’s trek toward graduation. Despite these helpful observations and its recommendations for improving academic advising, the report misses the mark on several key points.

First, and probably most disturbing for students, the report embodies the assumption that there is something wrong with taking an extended time to finish degrees or deciding not to finish them at all. The report proposes “financial consequences” if colleges meet or fail to meet the University’s graduation targets. It also suggests adopting a modified version of the University of California-Berkeley’s graduation policy, under which students who have completed eight semesters are not allowed to continue in the UC system after they reach 130 credits.

This approach to academic progress makes as little sense as a restaurant charging extra if customers fail to finish their meals. The University contends students who take extra semesters to graduate hurt the school by paying less tuition for the same University resources than students taking a full credit load. But the costs of most – perhaps all – University services are not directly linked to the number of students using the resource. A library’s journal subscription is the same price regardless of how many students use it; an academic adviser is paid the same salary no matter what number of students she sees; the Campus Connector uses about the same amount of fuel regardless of how many passengers it carries – or those passengers’ course loads. Additionally, the report’s view is philosophically wrong. As long as students pay for the privilege of attending the University and are willing to hand over extra money for seven years of study instead of four, the University has no cause for alarm or intervention.

The report also fails to explain how its proposals for increased faculty involvement in academic advising will be feasible. The report proposes, for example, requiring students seeking to drop courses between the second and eighth weeks meet with their instructors and “develop strategies for success in their course.” Additionally, in support of its proposal for e-mailing midterm warnings to students failing courses, the report recommends faculty structure their classes to ensure a student’s performance can be reasonably evaluated by the sixth week. Yet the report makes no mention of where professors will find the time for redesigning courses and taking on extra advising duties – especially since freshmen, the report’s main concern, typically take large 1000-level classes and can overwhelm an instructor’s schedule by their sheer numbers.

The report also keeps the gloves on when approaching what its own supplemental data shows to be a significant contributor to the University’s graduation shortcomings: General College. Although the report acknowledges General College as the institution’s frontrunner in implementing award-winning academic advising programs, a look at the numbers reveals that despite those efforts, General College’s four-, five- and six-year graduation rates consistently fall well below those of the student body generally and other colleges. No other academic unit consistently fails to meet the University’s average graduation figures.

General College functions as an intensive intervention into the academic lives of high-risk students, and many students have transferred from General College to other academic units and been successful. But these students are decidedly in the minority. The report correctly notes that since one-sixth of freshmen enter the University through General College, “one student in six who begins at the University did not meet the admission requirements expected by the other colleges.” Fewer than a quarter of these students graduate in six years, which, the report notes, makes raising the University’s overall graduation rate difficult.

But despite identifying the problem so precisely, the report fumbles when it attempts to propose solutions. It devotes only one paragraph to the subject and calls noncommittally for research, defining the University’s identity and accepting the implications of admitting some proportion of students through General College. What these things mean in practice is anyone’s guess.

General College associate dean Marge Cowmeadow noted at the meeting that even students who transfer out of General College to start their majors in other academic units typically do not graduate in six years and often do not graduate at all. The deans’ report dodges the necessary conclusion: Most students admitted to General College are so sorely unprepared for college study that they should not be admitted in the first place or should face rigorous standards and preparation in General College before being allowed to attempt the more self-directed environment of other colleges.

The deans’ report rightly acknowledges the University’s history of providing access for a variety of students and giving second chances to those not ready for the institution’s four-year colleges. But that tradition should not become a free pass for those who cannot meet minimum standards for admission to college study. The undergraduate deans need to make this point more insistently than their committee’s report.