Sarah Hammer’s friends like to say she “runs the U.” Hammer giggles with some embarrassment at the description but can’t deny the facts: Over her four years at the University of Utah, the 22-year-old senior has developed an impressive résumé of campus involvement that includes serving as both a Freshman Council and Student Alumni Board member, an Associated Students of the University of Utah representative, and a dormitory resident adviser. She’s also worked as a social justice advocate and was the 2012 Homecoming Queen. All the while, she’s taken close to a full load of classes each semester as an exercise and sport science major and has maintained a 3.7 GPA.
But juggling school and extracurricular activities has had a downside: It has slowed Hammer’s path to graduation. This fall, the Brigham City, Utah, native is starting her fifth year of college, and she says she’s feeling “pressure to graduate next spring.”
Hammer is far from alone. Most college students now take more than four years to get from freshman year to cap and gown. Like Hammer, some delay by choice, opting out of full-time classwork to balance their busy lives, while others may be derailed by financial or family challenges.
Hammer says she’s glad to have taken more time, because her experiences and opportunities have led to scholarships and helped her decide on what she wants in a career. But with the United States now ranked 14th among the 36 countries that track graduation rates, higher-education institutions are increasingly looking for ways to help students finish in four years and still have a rich collegiate experience. “It’s a complex problem facing a majority of educators,” University of Utah President David W. Pershing says.
In 2011, the most recent year for which comprehensive figures are available, the average graduation rate for students receiving a bachelor’s degree within six years of entering college was 59 percent nationwide, according to data gathered from both public and private colleges by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. The University of Utah’s graduation rate was slightly below that national average, at 55 percent.
According to The Chronicle of Higher Education’s 2011 College Completion report, the U in 2010 had the highest graduation rate of any publicly funded Utah college, at 56.4 percent. Utah State University was second at 54.6 percent, and Weber State University was third, at 40.6 percent. That’s something to celebrate, says Pershing, but the U still has “significant room for improvement” and myriad reasons why it is important to do so.
“The first is the long-term impact of graduation on individual lives,” the president says. “Every student who enters the U makes an investment in their education. In turn, the University and the state also make an investment in them. If they leave before graduation, there is far less return on either investment. The student will likely feel the impact of not completing their education throughout their lives, in both psychological and financial terms.”
Research in many disciplines over the years has found that college graduates typically have better health and live nearly seven years longer, on average, than those who only finish high school. College graduates generally have better work lives, are less likely to use government assistance, have better family relationships, and volunteer more often. Their children also tend to have more educational success.
College graduates fare better economically, as well. A 2012 report by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, titled The Economic Benefit of Postsecondary Degrees, shows that those who receive associate degrees earn at least $9,000 more annually than individuals who have only a high school diploma. A bachelor’s degree can raise annual income another $11,753. At the University of Utah, where 75 percent of the students come from within the state and many stay after graduation, that translates into a stronger tax base that benefits the state as a whole. “We are building stronger communities with stronger graduation rates,” the president says.
When Pershing began his presidency in 2012, he announced that one of his main goals would be improving the undergraduate experience and student success, including graduation rates. The U also has backed Utah Governor Gary Herbert’s initiative to raise college graduation rates statewide.
U.S. Census data show that just 40 percent of Utahns hold an associate or bachelor’s degree. That’s better than the national average, but the data also reveal that more Utahns—28 percent compared to 22 percent nationwide—have taken some college coursework without completing a degree.
Herbert wants to increase the proportion of Utahns obtaining post-secondary degrees or certificates to 66 percent by 2020. The goal is based on the findings of a 2010 study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce that projects that two-thirds of Utah jobs will require a postsecondary certificate or degree by 2020. Pershing admits the 66 percent goal is “ambitious” but says that even after just a few years of effort, the numbers are trending in Utah’s favor. To keep college educators and administrators on track, the Utah System of Higher Education has also set a smaller goal of increasing the number of degrees awarded in the state by 4 percent each year.
“That might not seem like a lot,” Pershing says. “But the number of degrees awarded in the state increased by 3.76 percent in 2010, 5.69 percent in 2011, and 4.1 percent in 2012.”
Utah is far from the only state wrestling with the complicated issue of improving educational performance and increasing graduation rates. And while there’s a crushing amount of data on the issue, with studies and analyses from multiple foundations, think tanks, and research centers in addition to the annual federal reports, it’s hard to find reliable numbers that provide a clear and accurate picture, says Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government affairs at the American Council on Education: “In every case, you need to look below the numbers to understand what’s taking place.”
The federal government calculates graduation rates based only on full-time, first-time students who enroll in the fall. If you transfer to another school, or take time off to work or, to use an example particularly relevant in Utah, serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, then statistically, you’re considered a dropout by the U.S. Education Department, he notes.
In the University of Utah’s case, the federal numbers show the rates of U students completing degrees after six years at close to or slightly behind the national average for comparable schools. Look a little farther out, and the picture gets brighter, with 71 percent of U students receiving their degrees within eight years, compared with the national average of 60 percent.
Three-fourths of the state’s college students work while attending school, and they tend to graduate with less debt than their peers nationwide. Many Utah college students also get married and have children earlier than their counterparts nationwide. And students often are unprepared for the academic rigors of college. About 50 percent of freshmen entering Utah’s two-year colleges enroll in some remedial courses. Remedial course work is also required for about 20 percent of those entering the state’s four-year colleges.
Another common denominator that presents a barrier to college completion is lack of financial resources. “Funding for education has continued to shrink across the nation, and tuition rates have increased to compensate,” the president says. “It is critical that we find ways to support our students financially as they endeavor to attain an education.”
Barbara Snyder, the U’s vice president for student affairs, says decades of research show several common denominators point to student persistence and success. Students who live and work on campus, for example, tend to stay on track educationally, and keeping work hours to a part-time schedule also helps. Other factors that contribute to success include family support, financial support, and learning communities that help strengthen students’ commitment to reaching their educational goals.
Addressing the U’s graduation rate challenge isn’t simple, and the University has launched a series of programs and strategies to tackle the issue on multiple fronts. Chief among them is an enrollment initiative that more carefully considers which students come through the door. The approach takes a comprehensive look at students, from grade point averages and test scores to extracurricular activities and the specific courses in which high school students were enrolled.
“We want to make sure we are admitting the right students,” says Mary Parker, the U’s senior associate vice president for enrollment management. “We also want to ensure that we look holistically at the student, not just at their GPA.”
The new approach also means understanding that the challenges are different for full-time and part-time students, males and females, those married and unmarried, working students, those who are parents, and those who live on and off campus. Identifying and understanding those hurdles allows the U to develop strategies for providing better student support, including academic and career counseling, access to financial resources, and a range of other needs, she says. “The other piece of that is making sure we are communicating with students so that they know about us and the services on campus,” Parker says, “so when they do hit that speed bump, they know where to go.”
Pershing notes that the U also is expanding its opportunities for collaborative learning within and beyond the classroom. Those include the BlockU Program, which gives students a set schedule, organized around a specific theme; the Integrated Minor Program, a thematic course through General Education that extends over four years; and Learning Portfolios, a program that allows students to use digital portfolios for increased assessment benefits and to reflect on and synthesize their learning experiences, the president says.
The U Honors College has taken that theme of engaged learning a step further, by integrating academic and residential life. Some 300 students now live together in the Donna Garff Marriott Honors Residential Scholars Community on campus. Also in the works is the Pierre Lassonde Institute, a campus-based residential community for entrepreneurial-minded students.
The U is also working to support the state’s overall initiative to graduate more students with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering, and math, by increasing the size of entering classes in those disciplines, and hopes to get state help in funding the Crocker Science Center, which will improve laboratory experiences for students. And for students who may not otherwise have found a campus home, the U now offers the Beacon Scholars Program, which aims to connect students with peer groups, Pershing says. The University is also working to create a more efficient course structure and expand online and integrated course offerings to allow students greater flexibility as they try to balance education with work and life.
Snyder notes that the U has found more good results through strategic student support. In the summer of 2012, the U Futures Scholarship Fund was created by the Board of Trustees to help U seniors pay for their education when facing financial challenges due to unexpected life events such as an illness, accident, or family crisis. Thirty students were awarded aid in amounts totaling nearly $60,000, with the stipulation that they graduate within two semesters, and all of them did so by the end of this past summer, Snyder says. “We’re expanding that program, because we know that there are many students who get close to the finish line who just need a little push.”
One statistical factor in the state remains a challenge for the University, however: Utah women start college at the same rate as men and at rates above the national average, but they are less likely to complete their bachelor’s degrees, Snyder says. About 31 percent of all Utah men hold bachelor’s degrees, but only 25 percent of the state’s women do. That gap is the highest in the nation.
“We’re quite concerned about that,” Snyder says. “We know many of our female students are going to end up as primary breadwinners for their families, and they are not completing their degrees.” According to the Utah Department of Workforce Services, more than 59 percent of married Utah women work, as do 74 percent of mothers with school-age children.
Utah System of Higher Education data also show that Utah women earn only 47 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, the lowest percentage in the nation. It’s a trend the state can’t afford to see continue, says Mary Ann Holladay, director of the Utah Women and Education Initiative, a spinoff from a governor’s task force on women in education. She and University leaders want to help foster a “culture of college” that helps expose young girls and their families to career and educational opportunities that motivate them to complete college degrees.
“As women, we compartmentalize our lives,” Holladay says. “We think education is an either/or proposition, but it’s not. We need to speak to young women early about the importance of having dreams fulfilled through education.”
The recent change in the minimum age for Mormons to serve missions for their church also presents a challenge for the U. Last year, the church announced the age requirement would change from 19 to 18 for men, and 21 to 19 for women. Many of those young men and women will forgo college after high school graduation to serve as LDS missionaries.
The Utah System of Higher Education anticipates some temporary challenges for the state’s seven public colleges, including drops in enrollment and revenue from the loss of tuition. U officials have told the State Board of Regents they anticipate as many as 860 fewer students for the 2013-14 academic year.
In response, the U has adopted a deferment policy that allows students to delay starting school for up to seven semesters after acceptance. That should accommodate the time students are serving missions: two years for men, and 18 months for women.
“We’re certainly paying a lot of attention to the missionary piece and what that means,” says Snyder. “One strategy will be making sure [students] make a commitment to higher education before they go, and making sure we have programs in place so that there is a seamless opportunity for them to return to the University.”
The American Council on Education’s Hartle believes it’s possible that the change may ultimately have a positive effect on Utah graduation rates, because students will enter college having learned a few life lessons and gained some maturity. Hartle compares the experience to what’s commonly called the “gap year” around the world, the time some students take between high school and college to “get a better sense of who they are, what their interests are, and what their skills are.”
Despite the challenges and uncertainties, Pershing says the U has ample support statewide from business and political leaders for its goals. And each of the programs being implemented at the University is designed to improve the quality of education overall, not just move the needle on graduation rates. “Our goal is to fully prepare them for success in this changing, competitive global economy and in life,” Pershing says.
Hammer says she supports those goals but doesn’t want administrators to think that every student who takes a slower path to graduation is a problem that needs to be solved. She’s been so inspired and enriched by her experiences at the U that she’s already got an eye on graduate school and a doctorate.
“I’d rather have had those experiences and taken a little bit more time to get my degree,” she says. “Just because we are taking a bit longer doesn’t mean we aren’t driven.”
—Jennifer Dobner is a reporter with The Salt Lake Tribune and has been a
frequent contributor to Continuum.