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Admission standards, planning could improve four-year college graduation rate

UND students head to class at Merrifield Hall on the UND campus Monday. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

The expectation of being able to graduate from college in four years may be gradually becoming obsolete.

Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs Steve Light said to counter the trend, UND is moving toward being more selective with student admissions.

“What we actually want to do is make sure we’re getting the right students here in the first place,” Light said. “We’re looking at new marketing efforts that are targeting student recruitment. Once we get them here, we want to keep them.”

And UND is already pretty good at keeping students around. The university’s retention rate, which is calculated by the number of students in attendance who re-enroll for the next semester, has hovered around 75 percent for the last decade. Enrollment is also higher than ever before, with more than 15,000 students at UND.

But what about graduation?

From 2001 to 2008, the number of freshmen who graduated within four years at UND stayed near 22 percent. During the fifth year, about another 24 percent graduated and during the sixth year about another 7 percent got their diploma.

In total, that means that about 55 percent of the freshmen who enrolled at UND from 2001 to 2008 left with diplomas, and for most of them, it took more than four years.

So, why is it taking so long?

The numbers

As enrollment has increased at UND in the last decade, so has the graduation rate, but the numbers still show that only about 20 percent of each enrolling class will leave UND with a diploma in four years.

For example, enrollment for the 1999-2000 school year was 10,590 students, but the number of degrees awarded four years later in the 2002-03 school year was a mere 2,223. This trend has continued: 12,748 students enrolled in 2008-09 and only 2,760 degrees were awarded four years later in 2011-12.

And this isn’t uncommon.

Mayville State University and North Dakota State University’s four-year graduation statistics are comparable to UND’s, as is the statewide rate of about 20 percent of students graduating in four years.

UND’s numbers are also comparable to national statistics, which show it took six years for 59 percent of full-time, first-time students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution in fall 2005 to get that degree, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Light said UND acknowledges the issue.

“It’s a long-term phenomenon,” he said. “It’s not new.”

Fixing the problem?

Light said it’s important to distinguish between private and public universities with these statistics.

“They’re (private universities) actually selecting the students they think are best equipped to succeed,” Light said of private institutions. “When you’re paying a high sticker price and/or when you’re heavily scholarshiped with that sticker price, there’s more of an incentive to stick around and try to graduate quickly.”

And the facts back him up. Four-year institutions with open admission policies give 31 percent of students a bachelor’s degree within six years, but four-year institutions with an acceptance rate of less than 25 percent have a six-year graduation rate of 88 percent.

Essentially, UND is moving in that direction. Enrollment standards have been raised slightly in the last year and would get even stricter if the proposed Pathways to Student Success program were implemented in fall 2015 as planned.

Basically, if UND only accepts freshmen they know are going to stick around and graduate on time, the graduation rate will improve.

More planning

Light said another way UND plans on getting students their diplomas in four years is by having each department come up with a structured class plan. For example, history majors would start their freshman year knowing every single class they’ll have to take and when right up until they graduate.

But it’s a lot messier to execute than it sounds.

Student Body President Nicholas Creamer said advising is a major issue for most students and that he knows many personally who have had to attend an extra semester because their advisers were incorrect.

“I have a wonderful adviser,” he said. “That’s not to say that everyone on this campus does.”

UND will be implementing a course catalogue and class registering system that will be completely online and make advisers available on an as-needed basis, rather than being required to meet with every student.

But Creamer said the problem lies with faculty advisers who are stretched too thin.

“It makes it difficult because you don’t have that individual whose sole responsibility is to stay current on the requirements for graduation as they change and have insight on what classes are going to be a good combination to take with one another,” he said.

Creamer is a fifth-year senior in the certified public accounting program that is supposed to take five years to complete. He will have to attend for an extra semester next fall, though, because he switched majors early in his college career.

“I think a lot of students enter their freshman year thinking that they have a good idea of what they want to go into and perhaps have their own life planned out in front of them,” he said. “Then come to find out a year later the field of study they expected to go into is nothing like they imagined.”


While these statistics don’t track students who leave college early without a degree for something better, like a job, or note that compared to national statistics, students in this region tend to transfer more, but the fact remains that North Dakota’s two biggest universities are only giving diplomas to less than a quarter of their students after four years.

Isn’t graduation the whole point?

Light said it’s important to take the “swirl” of students transferring in and out of universities throughout the Midwest into account.

“By the time they get here they have a requirement to meet, and then they choose a new major, then before you know it they graduate in six years instead of four,” he said.

Light also said students at more elite or private institutions tend to go in knowing what they want to do because it’s so expensive, they don’t have the option of staying for six years.

“Not everyone who comes here knows what their major is going to be,” he said.

UND’s apparent move toward becoming a more selective university is a good idea to Creamer, who supports the proposed Pathways plan.

“The sooner that the university begins to implement more and more pieces of Pathways, I think the sooner they’re going to start experiencing the positive benefits of that plan,” he said. “Frankly, it’s going to provide for the student body.”

But plans that involve raising admission standards can have pitfalls. Minnesota State University-Moorhead experienced a budget deficit in 2013 that was partially attributed to accepting fewer students and therefore collecting fewer tuition dollars.

Creamer was also skeptical of a “one size fits all” solution to an incredibly complicated issue.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” he said. “From a student perspective it’s very important, especially to those of us enrolled now, to not get short changed … there has to be short-term and long-term planning going on simultaneously.”

Anna Burleson

Anna Burleson is the higher education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald. She is a 2013 graduate of the University of South Dakota's Mass Communication program and is originally from Watertown, S.D. Contact her with story ideas or tips by phone, email or Twitter, all of which are listed below. Examples of her work can be accessed here.

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