What Graduation Rates Don’t Show You

Don’t trust graduation rates as the pulse of a university. Instead, look at its student support system. Ask how proficiency-based education is being integrated. Look into a university’s demographic: whom do they serve? Graduation rates don’t tell you the whole story.

Student retention is a big deal for college campuses. Keeping students and helping them graduate means support in both academics and social integration.

UMPI has two groups to help improve retention: the Behavioral Intervention Team and the Student Success and Retention Council. They work with faculty and staff and perform academic checkups on students. This helps students stay on task. More engaged students have a better chance of graduating.

“Are you making connections? Do you have friends on campus?” Vanessa Pearson, director of student success, said. “We’re definitely doing everything we can to make sure they’re successful.”

But a university can only offer so much support. When it comes down to a student’s success, it’s ultimately up to the student.

“Seventy percent of our students in a given year are considered at risk students,” Ray Rice, UMPI provost, said. “Our students come from working-class families facing the challenges that working-class families face.”

UMPI deals with many students who start and stop. Students come and go for various reasons. Pearson said a big reason for students’ leaving is the price of going to college.

“The cost is expensive,” she said.

“U.S. News and World Report” did, however, rank UMPI among the top 5 Regional Colleges in the North for graduates with least debt in 2014.

But despite national rankings, the nature of the economy puts a strain on students. That means most students have to work while they’re in school.

Graduation rates shared by the federal government don’t give you the latest results. Without recent data, the public doesn’t get the full story on how well a college is performing.

“It may take eight years to finish (their degrees),” Jim Stepp, UMPI dean, said.

Graduation rates are tricky for UMPI. Students who start and stop aren’t counted on graduation rates by the federal government.

According to higheredinfo.org, in 2009 the U.S. graduation rate for six-year bachelors’ degree students was 55.5 percent. In 2006, UMPI’s graduation rate for six-year bachelors’ degree students was 37 percent. But in 2008, the six-year graduation rate made its way up to 46 percent.

The increase is a great thing for the campus. It could be because of changes suggested by enrollment specialist Roger Sullivan. He worked with administrators to find ways of increasing retention.

“He helped us look at the big picture of enrollment management,” Erin Benson, director of admissions, said. “We’re beginning to incorporate his ideas.”

First generation students can also put pressure on retention. First generation students are the first in their family to attend college. So if a first generation student isn’t familiar with college life, the odds that that student may drop out increase.

“If you’re used to college life you’re more apt to stick around and graduate,” Rice said.

Early evidence shows proficiency-based education is having positive results for UMPI. That could help with retention

“My gut tells me yes, but we don’t have all the data yet. But the early data show a correlation to what  the campus is doing and it looks good,” Rice said.

Proficiency-based education could give struggling students a helping hand. The introduction of the non-proficient grade is new to UMPI. NP grades give students an extra chance to prove what they know. That chance could help with retention.

If students receive a NP grade they have 30 days to revise any work. Those 30 days could help a student get a stronger grade. There’s no extra cost to the 30 days. The results could show more mastery of the content, Rice said.

With the efforts the campus is putting forth to improve retention, Rice said he’d like to see a 50 percent six-year graduation rate.

Graduation rates only give you a bird’s-eye view of how well a college is doing. It’s only on the ground level that you find the pulse of a campus, where you can speak to someone face-to-face.