Raising graduation rates

The usual sentiment among college freshmen is that they will devote four years of their lives to earning a degree. However, University officials have begun realizing this is not the case on our campus, as we have been plagued by embarrassingly low four- to six- year graduation rates. This can negatively impact students’ experiences at the University, as well as the school’s rankings and reputation. Students and the Council of Undergraduate Deans must consider the many factors contributing to the dismal graduation rates and then work together to improve them.

First, the University’s mission as a land-grant institution promising accessibility has a bit to do with why students take so long to graduate. Making the University more accessible brings in a wide variety of students with different needs and goals. From high school graduates to working single moms and continuing education students, the student body is varied financially and academically. Also, accessibility means more high-risk students, who are more likely to drop out or stop out during enrollment.

Aside from different academic goals among students, money is a key factor on the road to graduation. Typical freshmen at the University have a great desire to become financially independent of their parents. They want a degree from a reputable school and find the University has the greatest value at the least cost. Because students want to break away from their parents financially, they work part time to pay for tuition, often forcing them to be part-time students. In many cases, students take on multiple part-time jobs to cover expenses.

The council’s apparent frustration with working part-time students is absolutely unreasonable. Students who want to be independent should not be coerced into looking to parents for financial assistance or taking out an excessive amount of loans. Simply put, students cannot be expected to quit their jobs when rent in the Twin Cities is increasing and there is a 13.8 percent tuition hike about to take place, not to mention credit card debt and the fact most employers want to see real-world experience. The council must face the reality that not all students can afford to take classes full time and devote all of their time outside of class to academic pursuits.

During recent discussions about graduation rates, two proposals were offered to combat low graduation rates. However, both ideas are quite extreme. The first suggestion, to impose a flat tuition rate and bill students for 15 credits regardless of how many they enroll for, is clearly unfair to part-time students who cannot afford to attend the U on a full-time basis. Students should not be forced to pay for something they aren’t receiving. Though this could motivate some students to increase their academic load, it could also force students who are moving at a slower pace to drop out entirely. The second proposal, to make students re-enroll if they don’t graduate after five or six years, is a bit more reasonable, yet it is also a sign that the University can only see another level of bureaucracy, paperwork and headaches as a solution to its problems.

Many of the complications that create roadblocks toward graduating are due to the immense bureaucratic nature of the administrative services. “Developing a sense of community in connection to the ‘U’ is a continual struggle. Given the size of the ‘U,’ it is an issue,” said University Vice Provost Craig Swan. However, instead of emphasizing activities such as convocation, which can at best give incoming students a tenuous link to their classes, the University would be better off giving resources to individual colleges to improve their communities. Additionally, the University should also devote more resources to the many student groups that exist through the Campus Involvement Center. Strong student groups can make up the lifeblood of a campus and can be much more welcoming to a new student than an afternoon event held at the start of the school year.

The council is preparing an official report on graduation rates that is expected to be released before fall semester. However, so far there has been no direct student input on the issue. Swan does realize the need for student involvement. “This is an issue that everyone is interested in, and we need to get the best suggestions from the widest possible audience,” Swan said. He said that once the official data comes out this fall, the council will work with student groups such as the Minnesota Student Association to get feedback and ideas on how to increase graduation rates.

Surely because graduation rates affect rankings, which can affect the amount of money the school gets, University officials are interested in churning students out at a faster pace. However, with their ludicrous suggestions and current lack of student involvement, it is hard to be certain if the bottom line for the University is giving students a good education, or if it is simply to have students graduate and boost rankings. Raising graduation rates is not an easy task and plans that work to truly increase campus community, lower pointless barriers like the Graduation Proficiency Test and seriously take in student input are the ones most likely to succeed.