University pulling up from bottom of rankings with peers.
Most University of Minnesota students are graduating in four years -- a feat that once seemed unlikely for a campus dogged by low graduation rates.
New numbers show that 54 percent of students who started at the Twin Cities campus in 2007 earned their degrees by 2011. Less than a quarter of undergrads who began at the U as recently as 1995 finished in four years.
University officials expect that the latest graduation rate -- a rise of four percentage points from students who began classes in 2006 -- will pull them up from the bottom in rankings with their peers.
The report, which a Board of Regents committee will review Thursday, comes at a time of growing national attention on students completing college. The Obama administration has called on the country to lift the percentage of Americans with degrees. For the past decade, four-year universities have pushed students to finish their studies and graduate.
In recent years, the University of Minnesota has tried to correct its comparatively poor graduation rate through a variety of means: offering credits beyond the first 13 for free, gathering freshmen on campus early for Welcome Week and encouraging students to map their majors and minors on an online application called a "Graduation Planner."
Six years ago, leaders set a goal of 60 percent of students graduating in four years by 2012. Even given the new, higher figure, the U looks unlikely to hit that mark. Even more work remains to reach the goal of 80 percent of students graduating within six years by 2014. Right now, the U stands at 70.5. But it has met the goal of 90 percent of students staying on for their second year.
This latest bump in four-year rates surprised Robert McMaster, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education. "I had expected the bump next year," he said.
True test next year
Indeed, next year's numbers will reveal whether years of work have paid off. For example, the class that graduates in 2012 will have been the first class ushered in through Welcome Week.
There's a long "laundry list" of tactics that colleges use in hopes of boosting graduation rates, said Don Hossler, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Among them: getting students to declare their major early, having them participate in orientation, helping them to get more contact with faculty members.
But "there's very little research about whether these initiatives actually have the effect you hoped for," Hossler said.
One thing that strongly correlates with timely graduation is the test scores and grades of incoming students, he said. So the more selective a school is at the start, the more likely the student is to finish.
The University of Minnesota has been admitting a much more competitive first-year class. For the class that entered at the Twin Cities this fall, the average ACT score was 27.5, compared with 25.1 in 2005. About 45 percent of the class ranked in the top 10 percent of their high school classes, compared with 34 percent in 2005.
Thursday's numbers also highlight an issue that U President Eric Kaler quickly called a priority: the gap between white students and students of color.
The graduation gap remains on the U's Twin Cities campus but is shrinking, the new numbers show. About 58.5 percent of white students who started in 2007 graduated in four years or less, compared with 38.9 percent for students of color.
"We want those to be identical," McMaster said, "but we're much closer now."
After the closing of the university's General College, which catered to low-income, minority and first-generation college students, the U started a new program called Access to Success. The 450 students who entered that program this year get extra academic support, a tailored curriculum and a sense of community.
McMaster said that leaders hope to expand the number of students in that program, as well as the number of years they remain in it.
Finishing in four
Alison Mach believes that next spring, after four years at the University of Minnesota, she will graduate. But it was close.
Mach, of Fond du Lac, Wis., had changed her mind on her retail merchandising major, diverting from its structured four-year plan. But after exploring another field and talking with advisers, she decided that she wanted her original major back.
Thanks to a summer study-abroad program in London and the fact that she consistently takes 17 to 18 credits a semester, Mach will graduate on time. She feels lucky for that.
The junior worries that some hyper-structured programs don't leave any room for a mistake or even a hesitation, she said. "I would really encourage students to evaluate all academic programs they are interested in as early as possible."
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168