In the 1990s, only 15 percent of the students at the University of Minnesota graduated in four years.
Now, that rate has soared to 59.1 percent — within "striking distance" of the U's goal of 60 percent, according to a report to the Board of Regents on Thursday.
Once at the bottom of the Big Ten, the university has made dramatic headway in its mission to boost graduation rates, the report shows. Now the U finds itself in the middle of the pack — even ahead of Wisconsin.
This year, more than 75 percent of undergraduates completed their degrees within five years, up from 37 percent two decades ago. It was the first time that the five-year graduation rate surpassed the 75 percent mark, which was the goal set by the Board of Regents in 2006.
"These were very ambitious goals," said Robert McMaster, the vice provost and dean of undergraduate education. "Almost unreachable to be honest."
One reason for the jump in graduation rates, he said, is that the university has become "much more selective" in admissions. "We're now admitting students to the University of Minnesota who, we feel confident, will be able to graduate in a timely way," he said.
At the same time, McMaster said that other strategies have paid off as well, including policies that encourage students to take full course-loads, or 15 credits a semester, in order to graduate in four years. Today, for example, any student who wants to take fewer than 15 credits needs special permission from an adviser.
Twenty years ago, he admits, the university put less emphasis on timely graduation, and as a result, many students floundered. "In the 1990s, the university woke up," he said. "We really needed to shift the dial."
Among other things, he said, the university started ramping up its advising and orientation programs. In addition, he said, it took a "long hard look at the curriculum to make sure there weren't bottleneck courses" — classes that students needed to graduate, but couldn't get into.
As the graduation rates rose steadily, the Board of Regents set new goals in 2006: by 2012, 60 percent should graduate in four years; 75 percent in five years and 80 percent in six years.
That deadline came and went last year, McMaster said, and they fell short of the mark. This year, though, the four-year rate came within a point of the goal, and the five-year rate surpassed it. The six-year rate, which is used for Big Ten comparisons, was 75.7 percent.
President Eric Kaler described the progress as remarkable, saying there had been a major push to help students stay on track academically and to avoid the kinds of problems that keep them from graduating on time.
"This is one of those classic examples of needing to do several things at once," Kaler said. One of them, he said, was "building a culture that's more attractive to higher-achieving students."
This year, a record 43,000 students applied for the freshman class of 5,500, according to Thursday's report to the regents. The average ACT scores and high school rankings of the freshman class have been climbing steadily for a decade, and this year, they were at all-time highs, McMaster said.
And the university is no longer at the back of the Big Ten class when it comes to graduation rates. A 2012 comparison with other public universities showed that it was in the middle, behind Indiana University and ahead of the University of Wisconsin.
Asked if he considered that a success, McMaster said: "Absolutely. … We always like to be ahead of Wisconsin."