FAYETTEVILLE -- For the first time since 2013, the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville reported a drop in its six-year graduation rate.
The graduation rate for students entering in the fall of 2011 fell to 61.5 percent compared with the 64.5 percent rate for the previous year's freshman class. It is the lowest six-year graduation rate since the 60.1 percent graduation rate for incoming freshmen in 2007.
The university's top academic officer, Jim Coleman, in a statement said it wasn't known why more students from the 2011 freshman class failed to earn UA degrees. That class consisted of 4,414 first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students, according to UA.
"We don't know for sure what caused the reductions for the 2011 cohort, but it does appear to be an anomaly relative to more recent cohorts," said Coleman, UA's provost since January. The university stated that data for incoming students in 2012 show that 62.9 percent have earned degrees within five years.
"So, it appears that not only was the drop an anomaly, but that efforts taken to improve graduation success have been working. And, with our continued building on these efforts, we are looking forward to new record graduation rates in the future," Coleman said.
However, the data for the most recent freshman classes also show a success gap between the neediest students and those with more financial resources, said Khadish O. Franklin, associate director of the Washington, D.C.-based Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.
Graduation and retention rate data published by UA include a breakdown for students receiving Pell grants, which are federal grants for low-income students, and Stafford loans, which are federal loans for students with financial needs.
Franklin, a Little Rock native and UA graduate, said students awarded Pell grants who need to also take out Stafford loans are the most likely to struggle to pay for college.
For this group at UA, the most recent first-year retention rate is 68 percent for those arriving on campus last fall, down from a 72.1 percent retention rate the previous year. For students not needing such aid, the retention rate increased to 86.2 percent from 85.6 percent a year earlier.
The latest six-year graduation rate for UA students receiving Pell and Stafford aid was 42.3 percent, down from 45.7 percent a year earlier and about the same as the 42.6 rate for the incoming class of 2007. Incoming students in 2011 who needed neither Pell nor Stafford aid had a six-year graduation rate of 70.4 percent.
Franklin, reviewing four years' worth of data, described the graduation and retention rates for low-income students as going up and down without any clear trend.
"That suggests the problem is not getting better. It suggests that it's a university issue, not related to a specific cohort," Franklin said. At UA, 643 students out of the 4,938 freshman class in the fall of 2016 received both Pell and Stafford aid, according to university data.
Since the fall of 2011, tuition and fees have increased by more than $1,800, up to $9,062 this year for a typical schedule from $7,174 in 2011-12.*
Mark Rushing, a UA spokesman, listed new plans developed this year as examples "of our increased focus on assisting students with financial need to help ensure they stay in school and graduate."
Among the programs he listed was the new Student Talent Enrichment Program, which offers targeted grant aid to first-year students with financial needs.
Data from UA also show that men and women saw a decline in graduation rates, with the gender gap narrowing compared with a year earlier.
The group of 2,258 women entering in 2011 had a six-year graduation rate of 65.6 percent, while the group of 2,156 men entering that same year had a graduation rate of 57.2 percent, for a gender gap of 8.4 percent. The previous year had a gender gap of 9.5 percent.
The university's four-year graduation rate for the incoming class of 2011 fell to 42.1 percent compared with 42.3 percent for the incoming class of 2010, but the university's announcement pointed to increases with subsequent years. The freshman class of 2013 had a four-year graduation rate of 48.5 percent, a record high, the university announced.
UA, the state's largest public university, typically has the highest graduation rate among four-year public universities in Arkansas, according to recent data from the state Department of Higher Education. Comprehensive data on the six-year graduation rate for students who were freshmen in 2011 is not yet available, but UA's most recent graduation rate trailed behind some peer schools in nearby states.
The University of Missouri reported a six-year graduation rate of 68 percent for students entering in 2011. The University of Tennessee has a six-year graduation rate of 70.2 percent for an incoming fall 2011 class of 4,188 first-time, full-time freshmen, according to a university spokesman.
A Texas A&M University spokesman said that school's six-year graduation rate is 81.6 percent based on a group of 8,930 freshmen who began school in 2011.
In September, Joe Steinmetz, who became UA chancellor in January 2016, said he expects within five years to see the graduation rate rise by 5 percent to 10 percent.
Trevor Francis, UA's associate vice provost and director of student success, said the school has begun using data-based strategies to identify obstacles to graduation. Pilot programs that offer targeted financial grants to students in need, as well as mentoring, have also been started, he said.
As an example of using data, Francis said UA now studies which courses result in high numbers of low grades. He said that, after looking at data, the university now requires students to take college algebra before enrolling in a particular chemistry course, for example.
Francis said UA has also worked to improve academic advising and personalized online information systems to better show what courses a student needs to fulfill degree requirements and who to reach out to for advising help.
There's an emphasis with advising and mentoring "on trying to help every student have a positive emotional connection with a person on campus," Francis said.
In a statement released by UA, Suzanne McCray, the university's vice provost for enrollment, said pre-registration has been established for new freshmen since 2014, with the interactive degree audits described by Francis established that same year.
Looking back at the 2011 freshman class, Rushing said the ACT and high school grade-point averages for the incoming students was comparable to the previous class.
Francis, at the time an academic adviser, recalled how in 2011 "there was a lot of growth, a lot of change," including campus construction. Undergraduate enrollment increased by about 20 percent over two years, from the fall of 2009 to the fall of 2011, rising to 19,027 from 15,835, according to UA data.
Growth has continued, but at a slower rate, with 23,044 undergraduates as of this fall.
"That's a challenge, I think, to providing a personalized success plan and approach. As you grow, that's been the opportunity and the challenge for sure," Francis said.
Metro on 11/14/2017
*CORRECTION: From 2011-12 to the current year, annual tuition-and-fees for a typical schedule at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville increased by more than $1,800. A previous version of this story incorrectly described the increase.
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