University of Iowa four-year graduation rate tops 50 percent

School sees success through new initiatives for retaining more first-year students

Vanessa Miller
Published: January 2 2014 | 5:00 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 1:34 am in
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For the first time in recent history, the University of Iowa’s four-year graduation rate has topped 50 percent, according to a report that will be presented to the Iowa Board of Regents next month.

Before the newest report, all three of Iowa’s public universities reported graduating fewer than half their students in four years. Last spring, all three regent universities reported falling short of their graduation rate goals, which vary by school based on peer institutions.

The UI, in March, reported a four-year graduation rate of 48.2 – just shy of its goal of 48.3. The regents asked each university to achieve its goal by 2016, and new numbers show the UI has met its mark in more than enough time.

In a report the regents will discuss at their next meeting in February, the UI boasts a most recent four-year graduation rate of 51.1 percent.

New four-year graduation rates for Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa have not yet been made public. In March, ISU had a rate of 39.5 percent – about 2 points from its goal. UNI had a rate of 37.8 percent – less than a percentage point from its goal of 38.4 percent.

All three regent universities have seen steady increases in four-year graduation rates in recent years. But finally topping 50 percent, in addition to surpassing its goal, is “exciting,” UI officials said. They credit the achievement, among other things, to freshmen retention efforts.

“We have found that high retention rates lead to high graduation rates,” said Beth Ingram, UI associate provost for undergraduate education.

The class of students now reporting a four-year graduation rate over 50 percent began in fall 2009 – the semester the UI launched new initiatives aimed at retaining more first-year students. Those efforts included identifying “at-risk” students, contacting them and offering a variety of services, from financial counseling for those with big university bills to tutoring for those with low grades.

The first-year retention rate for that class jumped from 83 percent to 86.6 percent – marking the largest first-year retention increase since at least 2000, according to UI records. The fact that the four-year graduation rate for that class has topped 50 percent is proof that early retention efforts count, Ingram said.

“It’s not a one-year effect but a four-year effect,” she said. “If you can keep them in the first year, they tend to stay.”

The UI has maintained those retention efforts and added some in hopes of encouraging more four-year degrees. For example, instead of asking students to sign a four-year contract when they enter school, as was the previous practice, the UI automatically puts most students in the program.

Students have to opt out of the four-year plan if they don’t want to be in it.

“What we wanted to do was tell them that the expectation is they’re in a four-year plan,” Ingram said.

The four-year “contract” doesn’t penalize students who take longer to graduate. But it asks them to have a plan and meet benchmarks, and – in exchange – the UI will make sure those students can enroll in courses they need to graduate.

If a required course is unavailable, the UI will allow students to substitute a different course, waive the need for the required course or pay tuition and fees for students to take the course later.

There are some majors excluded from the four-year plan due to various requirements like internships. Those majors include applied physics, elementary education and computer science.

“But most of our degrees are designed to be finished in four years,” Ingram said.

Universities nationwide are pushing four-year degrees for cost and efficiency reasons both for the institutions and for students, Ingram said. The Iowa Board of Regents, in fact, has convened a task force to look at using performance measures to allocate funding to its institutions, and graduation rates are part of that discussion.

Still, Ingram said, she thinks students benefit the most from four-year degrees.

“Every semester a student spends beyond four years is another semester in tuition,” she said. “They are spending money doing something they don’t need if they plan their four years efficiently.”

In 2010, the UI’s first-year retention rate dipped to 85.6 percent – down slightly from the 2009 high of 86.6 percent but above the 2008 mark of 83 percent. That number has been climbing again – 85.8 percent of students who started in fall 2012 returned this fall, according to UI statistics.

Ingram said the 2010 drop could mean the university’s four-year graduation rate again will dip below 50 percent.

“But our goal is to keep it up over the 50 percent level,” she said.

Michelle Cohenour, UI director of retention and early intervention, is part of the push to make that happen. She said some of the newest efforts in place include surveying first-year students earlier in the semester to quickly identify problems and making more contacts – including phone calls and hand-written notes – with students who might be struggling.

“We are taking a more personalized approach to check in with students,” Cohenour said. “We are trying to be proactive.”

Retention is connected with on-time graduation, she said, because students who feel supported and connected early have a solid foundation for a successful college career.

“If they feel they can see themselves as a Hawkeye, that absolutely can lead them to wrap up and start their careers in four years,” she said.

So far this year, more than 300 faculty and staff members have made 14,000-some contacts with new students.

But even though the university is pushing for more four-year graduates, Cohenour said her office views each case individually. Sometimes, she said, students would benefit the most by taking some time off or leaving the university all together.

UI officials offer exit interviews to help students find the best path for them, Cohenour said.

“We would love to see (retention rates) go up every year,” she said. “But if our students feel Iowa isn’t a fit for them, we want them moving forward with their degree.”

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