The University of Tulsa plans to raise its graduation rates over the coming years. Students and other universities have ideas TU could emulate.
At TU, 52 percent of first-time, full-time students who entered in fall 2008 graduated in four years, while 58 percent of those who entered in fall 2010 graduated in the same time. In six years, 70 percent of students who entered in 2008 graduated, while 73 percent of students entering in 2010 graduated.
Comparatively, the six-year graduation rate for full-time, first time students entering in 2009 was 66 percent for private, non-profit institutions like TU, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. Individual colleges and universities vary. Washington University in St. Louis, for instance, had a four-year graduation rate for students entering in fall 2008 at 90 percent, while Tulane University graduated 70 percent of their students over the same span.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s College Completion site, TU’s graduation rates place it solidly in the middle for four-year, private non-profit universities.
TU does hope to improve its four- and six-year graduation rates. Sheila Givens-Rains, the Director of Student Success Initiatives, said that starting with the fall 2017 class, TU hopes to have 70 percent graduate in four years, and 80 percent graduate in six years.
TU lacks comprehensive data on graduation rates by college or major.
Late Graduation Can Be Detrimental
In colleges across the US, students often don’t graduate in four years. Looking at four-year universities with greater than 10,000 students, the “Educause Review” found that the median four-year graduation rate was 27.9 percent, with 55.4 percent median rate of graduation in six years.
Taking longer to graduate translates to increased cost and lost wages. Looking at the average tuition for private nonprofit colleges, plus expenses related to repaying loans with an annual interest rate of 4.9 percent over the standard ten years, a student might pay an extra $18,992 in tuition and fees and an extra $7,823 in interest over ten years.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers estimated in 2013 that a student who took five years to graduate could lose $46,355 in income, and if graduation took six years, $94,353, (assuming some wage growth).
Not working also decreases the ability to save for retirement. According to NerdWallet, a consumer finance company, a student taking five years to graduate loses out on $82,074 in retirement savings, while taking six years causes a loss of $150,882. These estimates were based on saving 7.1 percent of income in a retirement plan, the average for people under 25, with a seven percent annual return over 45 years.
Why are Graduation Rates So Low?
A variety of reasons contribute to graduation rates being what they are, and it often depends on who you ask.
While college, especially a private one like TU, may be pricey, working long hours every week can significantly harm students’ graduation rates. It’s estimated that working more than 25 hours a week hurts students’ ability to pass their classes; a study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found that only 45 percent of students who did so could keep their GPA above 3.0. But in 2017, about 40 percent of students were estimated to work 30 hours a week or more.
Students also often take fewer credits per semester than are necessary to graduate on time. While TU defines full-time as 12 credits per semester, students need to take, on average, about 15 credits a semester to graduate on time. A B.S. in Biology at TU requires 124 credits to graduate, as does an English B.A. This means students should take 15.5 credits each semester, assuming they didn’t come in with AP or pre-college classes, to graduate on time. Taking 15 credits is discouraged by some financial aid, complicating the situation. Additionally, the ceiling for receiving the maximum Pell grant and some state financial aid is generally 12 credits.
Even as students graduate in six or more years, a recent U.S. Department of Education study found the average graduate had 138.4 credits by graduation, and that is before accounting for an average of 20.3 credits hours failed, repeated or withdrawn from. These credits may stack up from transferring universities or changing majors. A 2014 federal study found about 40 percent of students who transfer get no credits for completed courses and lose 27 credits on average.
Remedial courses may also affect students’ ability to graduate on time. Such classes don’t count towards a degree. At TU, Chemistry 0123: Principles of Chemistry serves as a remedial course, prepping students for basic concepts and problems necessary for General Chemistry.
Givens-Rains explained that issues in several areas may cause students to not graduate on time. Academic issues like course difficulties, poor analytical or communication skills and behavioral issues, such as “lack of self-discipline, poor time-management skills, not attending class or not devoting enough time with campus,” may contribute. Givens-Rains also pointed to socio-emotional issues, such as “dissatisfaction with on-campus living environment or roommates, dissatisfaction with social aspects of campus,” financial reasons or being the first in the family to go to college.
Ways to Improve Graduation Rates
TU’s 2017 – 2022 Strategic Plan places improving retention and graduation rates as the first priority, so the university is researching ways to improve these rates.
Recently, the university has done a few things to aid in rates. The changes to summer pricing policy, effective this year, gives free tuition to students who’ve completed less than 30 credits at TU, and reduced tuition to others in order to encourage summer courses. CSAS provides free tutoring, while the International Student Success Center provides English language support and help so students can adjust to life in the United States. A counselor has been added to the Alexander Health Center, while three staff members have been added to CSAS.
Additionally, TU has resources designed to help students through the advising and scheduling process. Givens-Rains said that “students have year-round access to advisers (faculty and professional) and degree plan records through Student Planning. These tools enable students to explore and make choices in their fields of study, customizing their academic plans to best suit their personal priorities and preferences and summarizing courses required to complete their unique academic plans.”
Acquiring data on graduation rates for different colleges and majors may also help TU students. Big datasets would allow the university to better understand why students are struggling to graduate on time at a small, private university that strives to be a prestigious one. Data on student performance can help address what types of programs and resources are actually effective. Data could also be used to better identify risk factors for delayed graduation and allow counselors and advisors to reach out to students who fall into those categories. The University of Nebraska — Kearney uses software to analyze dropout rates and determine students who may be at risk for delayed graduation.
Some colleges have chosen to address student work to improve their graduation rates. Temple University decided to award $4,000 grants to 500 eligible students who agree to work less than 15 hours a week off campus. This program is part of their “Fly in 4” campaign aiming to get students to graduate in four years. As part of the program, students must follow the requirements about advising and attempt to stay on track; if students meet the program’s requirements but are still unable to graduate on time, Temple will pay for whatever courses are necessary to graduate.
Complete College America, a program aiming to increase U.S.graduation rates, recommends colleges cap credit hours needed for a bachelor’s degree at 120 hours, a little below what some of TU’s degrees require. The organization also wants schools to offer remediation alongside college-level courses, almost like intensive tutoring.
Jackson Wood is graduating after five years at TU with a B.A. in sociology and a minor in biology, with some pre-med courses. Wood didn’t declare his major until the second semester of his sophomore year and didn’t add the pre-med emphasis until his junior year. He said his time at TU was extended due to “a combination of poor planning, ignorance of resources and an uncertainty about my major — all of which are things that many other students suffer from.”
Wood remarked that it “has never seemed realistic to me that an 18-year-old could choose their professional direction … the time I spent sampling classes in order to figure out what I wanted to do was time added to my time at TU.” But Wood also didn’t “have a single conversation with an advisor before enrolling in my first semester of classes.” It was faculty that finally influenced his major decision, not administrative offices. While Wood admitted he might be an exception to the norm in this regard, he said “Nevertheless, it seems like a lapse in the responsibility of the administrative offices.” He added, “I take as much or more responsibility for my extended time as I give to any arm of the TU administration. If I could go back and start again, I would actively seek out guidance instead of waiting for it to come to me.” He concluded by saying that his time at TU was productive and good.
Trent Gibbons, who entered TU in 2014 and will take classes this summer to graduate, believes making more classes worth the same credit might help students graduate on time. He dropped a course during his sophomore year, and because that same class wasn’t offered for a while, he had to take a more difficult option in a different college. If the courses are comparable, Gibbons argued they should be worth the same credit.
Other students note that class sizes sometimes seem artificially small. Limiting classes to ten students, for instance, allows the university to brag about small class sizes but can prevent students, especially underclassmen who select classes last, from taking courses on schedule.
Course schedules may also affect student graduation rates. If a course and its prerequisite are offered at the same time, only once a year, students may have trouble fitting things into their schedule. At TU, this has happened in the marketing major. Marketing 3003 is a prerequisite for marketing 3013, which is a prerequisite for 4083. The first two courses were offered this spring, but students were unable to take them at the same time. Next spring, marketing 3013 and 4083 are offered during the same semester.
Unless the college allows them to take both classes at the same time, students may have to wait until spring 2020 to take marketing 4083. It may be possible to avoid this by use of big data — using enrollment and major rates to predict when to schedule courses to better encourage students to graduate in four years.
Overall, students have had a variety of experiences graduating at TU. By changing some of its operations and collecting more data on students, TU hopes to improve its four- and six-year graduation rates.