Over half of regents students now graduate in four years

But minority students still face disparity in graduation rates

Graduates with high honors, signified by an #x201c;I#x201d; with three stars on their sleeves, are recognized during the
Graduates with high honors, signified by an “I” with three stars on their sleeves, are recognized during the Dec. 21, 2019, University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Commencement Ceremony at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. (David Harmantas/Freelance)

IOWA CITY — More students across Iowa’s public universities are graduating within four years but work still needs to done to show improvement in the graduation rates of racial and ethnic minorities, according to a new Board of Regents report.

The collective four-year rate for students at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa rose from 49 to 52 percent, the highest since at least 2000.

The UI showed the highest four-year graduation rate at 55 percent, followed by ISU, which saw its rate climb from 49 to 51 percent. UNI reported the biggest percentage-point bump, from 41 to 44 percent, and all three universities either tied or topped their previous bests in recent history.

UNI’s six-year graduation rate — the measure U.S. News & World Report considers for its nationwide rankings — rose from 65 to 67 percent. The UI and ISU saw little change in that metric, reporting a 1-percentage-point dip each to 74 percent and 72 percent, respectively.

First-year retention rates — the percentage of students who return to the campus for a second year — also held steady across the schools at 86 percent, a rate that’s seen little change over the past decade despite efforts to improve.

“We’re focused on continuous improvement not only for our four-year and six-year graduation rates, but also first, second, and third-year retention, and closing the achievement gap between different student populations,” ISU Provost Jonathan Wickert said in an email. He said his campus takes an “all of the above” approach to student success.

Despite the lack of movement in the first-year retention rate, the regent system’s 86 percent is better than the national average for four-year public universities of 71 percent.


And Iowa proves far superior to other states in its percentage of students who start at a four-year public university and graduate within six years from that university or another school.

Just over 70 percent of those who start at a public, four-year university in Iowa graduate from that same school within six years — second best in the country and nearly 16 points better than the national average.

Iowa ranks first in the nation — at 81.4 percent — in its rate of students who start at a public, four-year school and earn a degree within six years from any institution, topping the national average of 65.7 percent.

But when compared with their institutional peers, Iowa’s regent universities perform less favorably in six-year rates — with both the UI and ISU near the bottom of their closest competitors, like the University of Michigan, with its 92 percent six-year rate.

And the regent universities collectively have made little progress in closing the achievement gap for students who identify as racial or ethnic minorities. The system’s four-year graduation gap has narrowed from 16 points for the 1988 entering class to 13 points for the 2015 class, the most recent data available shows.

While white students — collectively across the three universities — have a four-year graduation rate of 54 percent, up from 51 the year before, regent students identifying as racial or ethnic minorities have a four-year graduation rate of 41 percent, down from 43.

Six-year graduation rates for racial and ethnic minorities also dropped, the report said from 65 to 62 percent.

ISU, however, reported bucking the reversal in some subcategories, with its Hispanic, black, and Native American students achieving record four-year graduation rates, according to the most recent data.


“These records speak directly to the work the university has been doing to address the attainment gap between our multicultural and white populations,” ISU’s part of the report said.

But ISU collective racial and ethnic minority graduation rates — in the four- and six-year categories — dropped, as did minority graduation rates at the UI.

Efforts to shrink the disparities at ISU include the 2018 launch of a “Closing the Achievement Gap” initiative, aimed at leveraging best practices for minority, first-generation and students from a low-income backgrounds.

On the UI campus, administrators recently announced a pilot “Hawkeye First-Generation Initiate” that next fall will provide those students extra support including mentored campus employment; faculty and peer mentoring; and weekly student monitoring and staff support.

UNI was the only of the three campuses to report an increase in its six-year graduation rate for racial and ethnic minority students — from 55 to 59 percent. UNI officials heralded the “positive indicators” of progress toward its diversity and inclusion goals.

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