Iowa public universities make gains in graduation rates

'It's definitely an important metric'


With the Board of Regents planning to raise tuition rates in light of dwindling state support and mounting campus demands, Iowa’s public universities are reporting improved graduation rates — with a record 49 percent of students earning degrees in four years.

Newly-released data shows University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and University of Northern Iowa also combined for a record six-year graduation rate of 72 percent — which does not reflect the percent of students who graduated in six years but rather needed more than four.

Regent system rates have been climbing steadily over the years, considering the 1997 cohort of students reported a four-year graduation rate of 31 percent and a six-year rate of 65 percent. Iowa’s new percentages, reported during a Board of Regents meeting last week, are well above the averages for national and Midwestern four-year public universities.

Getting undergraduates degrees sooner matters because it saves them tuition costs, reducing their debt, and helps universities use resources more efficiently.

“We know that if we have a higher four-year graduation rate, it means that student debt will decrease,” UI Student Government President Jacob Simpson told The Gazette. “In terms of setting people up for success, it’s definitely an important metric.”

The regent system’s six-year graduation rate ranks Iowa No. 1 in the nation — when considering just public, four-year universities, according to the new report. Of the students who started at one of the three public schools in Iowa in 2010, 69 percent earned a degree at the same university and 81 percent earned a degree from somewhere.

When assessing only full-time students who started at one of Iowa’s public universities in 2010, 92 percent got a degree from somewhere.


“That’s a pretty good step toward their American dream,” Jason Pontius, associate chief academic officer for the Board of Regents Office, told the full board during its meeting last week.

Looking at each of Iowa’s public universities individually, all are reporting positive trends, with the University of Iowa reporting increases and the highest rates in both categories. Its six-year rate for the entering class of 2011 was 74 percent, up from 72 percent. The UI four-year rate for the entering class of 2013 was 54 percent, up from 53 percent.

Iowa State and UNI also reported record four-year rates, with 46.4 percent and 43.2 percent, respectively.

University heads often bring up graduation rates when appealing to lawmakers for appropriation bumps — arguing they’re putting the resources to good use and could do even more with better support.

During administrators’ most recent Legislative presentation in February, UI President Bruce Harreld pointed to his institution’s four-year graduation rate as an important figure — but noted UI is actually behind many of its peer competitors.

Some of those schools have much higher four-year graduation rates — like the universities of Michigan and California Los Angeles, with percentages in the mid-70s, and University of North Carolina, with a rate above 80 percent. But all those schools also have more revenue per student, which includes both tuition and appropriations.

“These universities have two primary advantages that contribute to higher retention and graduation rates,” Pontius said. “One, they have more resources in the form of higher tuition, state support, and in many cases larger endowments. They’re also highly selective.”

Iowa’s regent universities admit between 82 and 87 percent of their applicants, helping — at least in part — close a racial and ethnic minority gap “that has remained stubbornly constant,” according to Pontius.


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The new Board of Regents report shows both white and minority students have seen increases in four-year graduation rates, but the white student rate remains 10 percentage points higher than the minority rate. The universities have seen some progress in that area in six-year rates, with the gap between white and minority students shrinking from 18 percent with the 1992 cohort to 9 percent with the 2012 cohort.

“Closing that gap is important,” Pontius said. “And it becomes more so as the racial and ethnic diversity of Iowa high school students increases over time.”

UI Student Government President Simpson said he — like many of his peers — plans to graduate in May, capping his undergraduate career at four years. But he acknowledged some students — for a variety of reasons — actually want to elongate their time to degree.

“Every student’s path to success is different,” he said. “And so, as long as the university is supporting students in a way that gets them to graduation at the optimal date for them, I think that is what is important.”

More pomp, less circumstance

As regent universities graduate students at a faster clip — the average now is 4.4 years — commencement ceremonies have swelled, especially at Iowa State, where enrollment has spiked in recent years.

To accommodate the larger classes, Iowa State for the last two years held its undergraduate ceremony outdoors at Jack Trice Stadium to provide unlimited seating. But the record-high number of graduates exacerbated the ceremony’s length — pushing it to nearly four hours.

So Iowa State for the first time this spring will split its undergraduate commencement into two. The colleges of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Business, and Liberal Arts and Sciences will participate in a 10 a.m. ceremony; the colleges of Design, Engineering, and Human Sciences will walk in a ceremony beginning at 2:30 — both are planned for May 5 in Hilton Coliseum.

ISU President Wendy Wintersteen announced the change this week following a recommendation from a task force that spent months studying options and surveying the senior class.


“Having two ceremonies allows graduates to have the experience they want — to have their names read as they walk across the stage, and to celebrate with an unlimited number of guests — but with a much shorter ceremony (about half the time),” ISU spokeswoman Annette Hacker said in an email.

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