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Education

After steady gains, UI graduation rates dip

Iowa's regent averages still rate well above U.S. score

Graduates look on May 12, 2018, during the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and University College Spring 2018 Commencement at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The most recent measures of the UI four-year and six-year graduation rates dipped slightly, though a longer-term trend for the regents’ schools shows strong improvement. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Graduates look on May 12, 2018, during the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and University College Spring 2018 Commencement at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The most recent measures of the UI four-year and six-year graduation rates dipped slightly, though a longer-term trend for the regents’ schools shows strong improvement. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — The percentage of University of Iowa students who graduated within four years fell in the most recent measure — moving the campus farther from its strategic goal for now despite a long-term trend toward improvement.

The university, which has made timely graduation a key metric in its student success initiatives, reported to the Board of Regents a four-year graduation rate of 53 percent for the entering class of 2014, according to documents made public last week.

That’s down from 55 percent for the 2013 entering class, and is 7 percentage points away from the UI goal of 60 percent by 2021, according to the university’s strategic plan.

Iowa State University — which historically has been about 10 points or more below the UI in the four-year graduation category — reported an increase from 46 to 49 percent for the most recent measure, bringing it within 4 points of the UI — the closest since at least 2000.

ISU also saw an increase in the percentage of students who graduate within six years — from 73 to 75 percent — while the UI saw a slight decrease from 74 to 73 percent. That pushed ISU ahead in the category.

The University of Northern Iowa, like the UI, saw drops in both rates — reporting a dip from 43 to 41 percent for its four-year rate and from 67 to 65 percent in its six-year figure.

All three public schools have made timely graduation a priority as concerns about student debt mount amid legislative funding cuts and tuition increases.

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And even though progress is slow or stalled in the most recent report, the regent institutions’ overall four- and six-year graduation averages remain well above the average for U.S. four-year public universities.

The regents’ average four-year rate is 48 percent, more than 10 points above the national 37-percent average. The board’s six-year graduation rate average is 72 percent, above the national average of 60.

Iowa ranks No. 1 in the nation for the percentage of students who start at one of its four-year public universities and earn a degree there or elsewhere within six years — at 82 percent.

But the state slipped to second nationally behind Virginia in the percentage of students who start at one of its public universities and graduate from that same institution within six years — with 70 percent.

And, when looking at long-term trends, Iowa’s regent universities have made steady gains.

Its 2012 entry class for all regent universities boasted a six-year graduation rate of 73 percent — up from 66 percent in 2000. Its 2014 cohort had a four-year rate of 49 percent, up from 35 percent nearly two decades ago.

The board’s average time to degree also has been steadily decreasing, reaching a 20-year low of 4.35 years with the 2012 entering class.

UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck characterized those long-term trends as more reliable than annual ebbs and flows.

“We are really proud of the great progress we’ve made in increasing our four-year graduation rate over the past 15 years,” Beck said. “Looking year-to-year at graduation rates is less reliable than looking longitudinally. The university’s long-term trend in the four-year graduation rate is very positive.”

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All three of Iowa’s public universities have employed tactics and initiatives to improve graduation and retention rates — even while ending some earlier efforts in the wake of state de-appropriations.

The UI, for example, in 2014 began offering undergraduate “Summer Hawk” tuition grants to “help students finish their degrees in four years.” The university ended that program last summer, citing dwindling state resources and growing impetus to “channel our efforts to where we can have the greatest positive impact on improving graduation rates,” according to Lon Moeller, associate provost for undergraduate education and dean of the University College.

“Summer Hawk was launched to help students who were not on track to graduate on a timely basis because they had changed majors, needed to retake a course, or because they needed to spread out difficult courses to better manage their study time,” Moeller said in a statement at the time. “Unfortunately, after four years, we’re finding that there are many factors that impact time to graduation that are not specifically addressed by Summer Hawk.”

Among UI efforts to improve graduation and retention rates is a mandate all entering first-year and transfer students take a “Success@Iowa” online course, which covers topics like alcohol education, safety, inclusion, financial literacy and academic integrity.

The university also offers most first-year students eligibility for its four-year graduation plan, which involves an institutional commitment to get them their degree on time as long as they fulfill a list of responsibilities — like taking enough hours per semester and meeting regularly with an adviser. The pact doesn’t apply to all majors. Applied physics and elementary education, for example, are excluded.

Among ISU’s efforts is its push for student participation in a “learning community,” which connect students to like-minded and like-interested peers and programming. Learning communities, according to ISU, have reached a participation high, with 78 percent of first-year, full-time students engaged with one or more.

ISU also has a “New Student Onboarding Task Force,” aimed at improving the transition to campus, and a new “Smart Start Program,” which will start with the fall entering class. That first-year early academic intervention program aims to support students with lower admission scores.

In addition to helping curb student debt and improve campus efficiency, achieving timely graduation can help boost a university’s national reputation and ranking, which UI and IU administrators tout as a priority for their schools.

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U.S. News & World Report, commonly cited and referenced by institutions and prospective students, weighs graduation and retention rates heavily in calculating its scores. More than one-third of a school’s ranking comes from its ability to retain and then graduate students within six years, according to the national publication.

“It receives the highest weight in our rankings because degree completion is necessary to receive the full benefits of undergraduate study from employers and graduate schools,” according to a U.S. News explanation of its calculations.

Last fall, the UI learned it had dropped in the U.S. News rankings from No. 31 to No. 38 among public universities and from No. 78 to No. 89 among all national universities. ISU also lost ground, moving from No. 53 to No. 56 among public universities and from No. 115 to No. 119 overall.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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