Report addresses why college grad rates are low

Thursday , May 28, 2015 - 10:17 AM

By CALEB LARKIN
Standard-Examiner correspondent

OGDEN – A state audit report identified student behaviors that lead to lower graduation rates. The report is here.

David Stringfellow, chief economist at the Office of the Utah State Auditor, researched the inconsistency of high school students’ college expectations with the reality of current university graduation patterns.

The audit identified three important issues colleges in Utah can help change. The report found that (1) remedial classes are ineffective, (2) the more credit hours per semester a student takes, the higher their graduation rate rises, and (3) students who withdraw from courses mid-semester have lower graduation rates.

Stringfellow explained the report covered years 1999 to 2014. The data included students who attended at least four semesters, but the semesters did not have to be consecutive. The audit presented graduation rates based on students receiving a degree after attending eight semesters. They also recorded separate rates for students who took more than eight semesters to graduate.

The key finding related to remediation. “It surprised me that there were so many students who had so much remedial intervention, but it didn’t improve their graduation rate,” Stringfellow said.

Remedial classes are the courses students, who do not meet college benchmarks, must pass before taking college level classes. Remediation is intended to help students catch up and stay on track for graduation. Yet students who are able to skip remediation have a 17 percent better graduation rate than those who take three or more remedial courses. The state auditing department suggested “narrow and targeted remediation” to stop the dropout trend.

Weber State University president, Charles Wight, acknowledged the need for change in remediation. He recognized math remediation as the biggest issue.

Remedial courses are common in Utah universities. Almost 90 percent of students take up to nine credit hours in these preparatory classes.

Stringfellow presented data supporting Wight’s concern with math courses. Only five percent of students who don’t take the recommended math courses in high school pass college benchmarks.

WSU created a pilot program this year to improve developmental math courses. The university now offers a Math 810 class to jump to the Math 1030 level in one step.

“For math and science majors, Math 1050 is still a prerequisite, but for other majors Math 1030 is enough,” Wight said.

Wight hopes offering different options for students combined with changing how professors teach math will help students meet the math developmental requirements. “Every institution across the country is working on (improving math remedial courses). We hope offering more options will allow students to get into a class that suites their learning style,” Wight said.

The audit report also showed graduates with Bachelor degrees averaged just more than 12 credit hours per semester. The correlation showed part-time students, those taking less than 12 credit hours a semester, are less likely to graduate in the state-determined amount of time. This is not a surprising finding, however, since part-time students graduate at a rate of only 22 percent. Full-time students have a 66 percent graduation rate.

Wight suspects the report did not factor in that many part-time students eventually graduate. He reported that 75 percent of new students who entered WSU in 2002 eventually received some kind of degree.

The report also compared WSU with 60 other similar universities across the nation. Only three other institutions reported a higher number of attending part-time students.

“Their graduations are going to be slower,” said Wight speaking of part-time students. “But our analysis of entering entering class of 2002, is they eventually graduate. Should it be faster? Absolutely. But we don’t want to force students to take more classes or have them give up on their education.”

Jordan Smith, a recent WSU graduate from Ogden, believes most of the students at Weber State are part-time because “they have families, wives, kids, and jobs. We tend to go a bit slower because the marriage rate is higher and younger in Utah.”

Smith also attributed low credit hours to difficult upper level science and math classes that require more work per credit hour.

The findings don’t show causation. The report identified behaviors that tend to increase graduation rates.

“It’s not a part-time, full-time comparison, the message is ... take as many course credit hours per semester as you can, and that increases your odds of graduating,” he said. One extra course a semester increases a student’s graduation rate by 12 percent.

Stringfellow and Wight agree better advisement for graduation plans and financial aid options will have the greatest impact. The two biggest obstacles for students are still time and money. Wight hopes advisors at WSU and high school teachers can better prepare students financially and academically for college.

“Graduation is the ultimate performance measure in the end, but that number alone isn’t going to help you actually graduate,” Stringfellow said.

He feels instead measuring behaviors correlated with high graduation rates will help Utah universities assist students meet their college expectations.

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