Colleges Focus On Improving Graduation Rates

By Yaffa Klugerman
October 29, 2009

With enrollment surging at colleges and universities nationwide, many institutions are now shifting their priorities: The goal is no longer to increase enrollment, but to improve retention and graduation rates.

The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, reports that a growing number of area colleges are looking for ways to ensure that students remain in school and earn bachelor's degrees. The Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, meanwhile, will be working on a plan over the next year focusing on student retention and graduation.

"There is no question that we need to significantly improve our retention and graduation rates," said Bob King, council president. "We are pretty good at getting kids in the front door, but not at keeping them and getting them through the back door with a degree."

According to recent statistics from the council, nearly 9,000 students did not return for a second year at the schools they began as freshmen between fall 2007 and 2008. At the same time, Kentucky State University lost 47 percent of its freshmen, the University of Louisville lost 15.5 percent, and the state's community colleges lost an astonishing 5,000 students--over 70 percent of its first-year students.

The U.S. Department of Education reports similar alarming trends throughout the country, noting that 30 percent of college students nationwide will drop out within their first year, and half will never graduate. As part of his fiscal 2010 budget proposal, President Obama included $2.5 billion for the creation of the College Access and Completion Fund to help states boost college completion rates. The House included the fund in the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act that passed in September, but the Senate has yet to vote on it.

Last month, The New York Times quoted an economist who referred to the University of Montana, which graduates less than 41 percent of its students, as a "failure factory." But the school has clearly taken the issue seriously and recently hired a new undergraduate advising director, Beth Howard, who said her first priority would be creating a strong support system for freshmen to ensure that they remain in school. She noted that making such resources more available or easier to find will ultimately help students graduate.

"The key is identifying the variety of needs and being able to provide the appropriate services for those students," said Howard, who was quoted in Montana Kaimin, the school's student publication.

Similarly, in an effort to increase its most recent graduation rate of 58 percent, the University of Kentucky recently hired more academic advisers, expanded tutoring services and launched an academic alert system which flags students with dropping grades. UK Provost Kumble Subbaswamy now requires professors to report midterm grades to the registrar's office, and has circulated a list of 25 tips to help faculty identify and assist struggling students.

While the focus on retention is a step in the right direction, King told the Courier-Journal that efforts will take time. "These things don't happen overnight," he said. "You're not going to see the results immediately."

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