6-year rate rises at 3 universities

But graduation gauge falls overall at state institutions

Posted: August 3, 2014 at 3:54 a.m.

The six-year graduation rate for first-time students enrolled in public Arkansas universities dropped from 40.8 percent to 39.5 percent in 2013, according to an Arkansas Department of Higher Education report.

Graph showing six-year graduation rates.

The national average is 57 percent for first-time, full-time students who began seeking bachelor's degrees at four-year public institutions and earned degrees six years later, according to the National Center for Education Statistics of the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences.

Arkansas' graduation rate ranks as the sixth-lowest in the nation, with only Arizona, Louisiana, New Mexico, Nevada and Alaska trailing, according to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.

This year's slight decline in the latest numbers for Arkansas' public universities -- after the graduation rate rose from 38.5 percent in 2009 to 40.8 percent in 2012 -- raises the question of whether Arkansas is on track to meet Gov. Mike Beebe's 2011 call to action to double the state's number of degree holders by 2025.

To that question, Beebe gave a resounding "Yes" when asked in a recent interview.

"We didn't get into this shape overnight; we're not going to get out of it overnight. That's why the goal was set for several years after I'm gone. But you have to start," Beebe said. "I've been pleased that these colleges have bought into this goal and are doing what they can do within the parameters and resources to do those things necessary to achieve that goal."

The graduation rate is important, state leaders say, because the more graduates a state has, the more economic development opportunities come its way; college graduates earn higher salaries, which also affects the economy; and the standard of living in a state goes up.

"Research shows that college graduates are much less likely to be incarcerated, engage in less risky behavior and generally live much healthier lives, so that the decreased burden to society alone is a true economic driver for any economy," said UA System President Donald Bobbitt.

The Department of Higher Education report tracks students who enrolled in college for the first-time in 2007.

The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville had the highest graduation rate of the four-year institutions, with 59.8 percent of its 2,878 first-time, full-time students who enrolled in fall 2007 earning a degree within the next six years, according to the report. That number dipped from 60 percent of its 2,725 students who enrolled in 2006.

Only three of the state's 10 public, four-year universities increased the percentage of students who earned a degree six years after they enrolled.

The report showed:

• The University of Central Arkansas at Conway rose from 40.8 percent in 2012 to 42 percent of its 1,763 first-time students in 2013.

• The University of Arkansas at Monticello rose from 26.9 in 2012 to 28.1 percent of its 619 first-time students in 2013.

• The University of Arkansas at Little Rock rose from 19.3 percent in 2012 to 21.6 percent of its 814 first-time students in 2013.

UALR had the lowest percentage among the four-year universities.

"I take strong exception to the measure," UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson said. "The students to whom we hand UALR diplomas are on average just under 30 years old; and on average the time between their first course and completion of the last course for their bachelor's degrees is just under 10 years. Those students are not counted in the measure. They started and stopped, maybe for very good reasons related to family or jobs. But they came back. Also, approximately two-thirds of our graduates are transfer students who started somewhere else and finished with us. They don't count either. The six-year, first-time, full-time measure is simply not appropriate to all institutions."

The report also tracked the state's two-year colleges using a three-year graduation rate period. Of the 8,023 first-time, full-time students enrolled in the state's 22 community colleges, 19.3 percent -- a slight dip from 19.8 percent of its 8,337 students in 2012 -- had earned an associate's degree, technical certificate or certificate of proficiency within three years, according to the report.

The three-year graduation rate among the community colleges was highest at Southern Arkansas University-Tech in Camden, where 32.1 percent of its 190 students earned a degree or certificate three years after enrolling.

College and university chancellors and presidents signed a pledge after Beebe's 2011 challenge and quickly began researching and implementing new strategies, including raising admission standards, creating initiatives to keep students in school and exploring ways to provide better academic and lifestyle support for students.

The state as well as individual colleges and universities have been trying to reduce the sticker price of tuition by steering students toward more scholarships and offering students financial literacy training. Although all the public universities' boards of trustees voted to raise tuition for the fall semester, some members expressed concern about the rising cost to students.

Bobbitt, the president of the state's largest system of universities and community colleges, said he felt it was premature to comment on year-to-year changes because there are so many "one-time factors that can influence them."

"We are just now beginning our analysis of things that influence graduation rates for each campus to see how we can strategically attack the problem," Bobbitt said. "I'm more interested in looking at three-year running averages to see what the trend lines show. We do know that we can do better, but we also feel like a more accurate road map can be drawn up to give us better direction and more detail."

University of Arkansas at Fayetteville leaders set a goal to increase the rate to 70 percent by 2021 and have initiated several aggressive strategies to meet that goal. A university committee is in the final stages of filling a newly created position of associate vice provost for graduation and retention, said Provost Sharon Gaber.

That position will take the helm of the planned Office of Graduation and Retention, which was created after a university committee formed last year to study ways to improve graduation and retention rates.

The university also added six academic advisers, started the University Perspectives class to help better prepare freshmen students for the college experience, and added December graduation ceremonies.

"Our feeling is there's nothing more important than helping to ensure our students succeed. We want to get them here and have the students graduate," Gaber said. "We are putting a lot of time and energy in this."

Likewise, the University of Central Arkansas in Conway has set a goal to achieve a six-year graduation rate of 60 percent by 2022. In 2013, 42 percent of its 1,763 first-time students had graduated after six years.

"That's quite a jump. If we're going to do that, we have to make some significant gains pretty quickly," said Steve Runge, the college's executive vice president and provost. "To do that, we have developed a management plan which has different components that include recruiting and retention. We have to recruit robust, high-quality entering freshman classes and do everything we can to help them be successful."

The college doubled its number of academic advisers with the recent hiring of 10 staff members who will focus on freshmen and sophomore students.

Earlier this year, UCA created the Student Success and Retention Council, which includes representatives from academics and student life faculty and staff, to study retention and graduation data and research the best strategies for reaching the institution's goal.

UCA also created an office of Student Success, hired upper-level students to be peer mentors for lower classmen and expanded its residential colleges.

"One of the things we will not do as we work toward this goal is lower our standards. We know we want students to succeed. To succeed, you have to do well. We're not going to lower our standards to meet that goal. What we're going to do is create a much more supportive environment," Runge said.

To attain the goal of doubling the number of degree holders by 2025, Beebe said colleges and universities must overcome the two major reasons students don't stay in college.

"Lack of preparedness and lack of money are both systemic problems and both are being systemically addressed in a very positive way," Beebe said. "Are you going to have blips along the way? Of course. But having said that, the pool is getting bigger. And obstacles for that pool to be successful are being attacked."

A recent report from the state Department of Higher Education shows that the number of Arkansans who went straight to college from their public high schools was up by 1.4 percentage points in 2013, with 16,133 students, or 54.3 percent of spring high school graduates, attending college the subsequent fall semester.

"As Arkansas continues to put out a better product from high school then you're helping to address, at least partially, that lack of academic preparedness. It is reflected in the lowering of the remediation rates," Beebe said.

The remediation rate has fallen steadily over the past five years, from 55 percent in 2009. A report, released earlier this year by the state Higher Education Department, shows 43.2 percent -- or 8,667 of 20,064 test takers -- needed a remedial college class in 2013.

The graduation rate report shouldn't be taken as the whole picture of the state's educational health, said Higher Education Department Director Shane Broadway.

"I think we've all gotten better at looking at the data, trying to figure out how we address it. Once they're on campus, 36 percent of your students are part time so they're not counted in that graduation report," Broadway said.

Also not counted as graduates are students who begin college in Arkansas then move out of state to finish their degrees. The rate only includes first-time students, but it doesn't take into account the number of students who are returning to finish a degree later in their lives.

And, Beebe said, policymakers need to consider another aspect.

"There's something totally unrelated to my goal of doubling the college graduation rates that also needs to be addressed. That's the idea that we've also got a need for students to go into trades or professions that are in huge demand right now that don't require a college degree," Beebe said. "So you've got to balance that. We're not backing up. We need to improve our standing on the percentage of the population that has a bachelor's degree, but we also need to ensure that workforce has adequate support."

While it's true that the health of economic development in the state is made stronger by having an educated workforce, a college diploma is not the only aspect potential industry consider, said Grant Tennille, executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.

"The companies aren't as concerned with the percentage of degree holders . ... They don't care if we're the lowest in the nation on the number of baccalaureate degrees; they only care if they can get the people they need," Tennille said.

"We need both is the short and most obvious answer. You don't need the pendulum to keep swinging. We need a combined strategy that produces both. In our effort to improve we've swung the pendulum pretty hard that everybody ought to go to college. We need to keep our eye on the fact that college means one thing: everybody needs some education and training after high school. For some people it's a four-year degree, for others it may be a two-year degree, certificate or apprenticeship," he added.

Building and maintaining partnerships with local industry produces not only graduates but also a robust economic development advantage, said Robert Gunnels, vice chancellor for academics and honors program director at SAU-Tech.

"We are the only college in the state located within an industrial park," Gunnels said. "The industry has very specific needs that create in-demand employment for our graduates. Most of our programs have a focus. There is a motivation that there will be a job there when they are done."

A section on 08/03/2014