The University Record, September 8, 1992

U-M grad rates among highest in nation, but disparities exist

By Mary Jo Frank

Four out of five freshmen who enroll at the U-M this fall will graduate within six years, assuming they are as successful as recent grads.

The U-M’s 83.6 percent graduation rate, which jumped more than 20 percentage points in one decade, is among the highest in the nation.

Of the 4,461 freshmen who enrolled in 1985, 83.6 percent graduated in six years. This compares with a graduation rate of 62.1 percent for the 4,584 freshmen who enrolled in 1975.

Graduation rates for all racial groups have improved since 1975 but still vary between groups, with Asian Americans and whites graduating at higher rates than African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics. (See table at right.)

“The institution's primary goal has to be to achieve similar graduation rates for all ethnic groups,” says Office of Minority Affairs Director John Matlock. “We have improved in that effort but much more needs to be done.”

Fewer students today are completing bachelor’s degrees in four years than they did 20 years ago, Matlock notes. Nationally, and at the U-M, more are taking five, six or even seven years.

Only 53 percent of the full-time freshmen at 297 institutions who entered in 1984 graduated within six years, according to a recent survey by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

Major reasons for the increasing amount of time between college entrance and graduation, cited in a July 15 Chronicle of Higher Education article, are changes in financial-aid policies and a shift from grants to student loans.

Some students take fewer credit hours because they need to work to earn money. This strategy may not save money, Matlock notes, if it results in paying tuition and room and board for a fifth or sixth year.

Students who receive more financial support from home are at an advantage when it comes to completing degree requirements within four or five years, Matlock says.

“A lot of students work out of necessity. Working 15 to 20 hours a week and trying to be a full-time student definitely has an impact.”

Some students take lighter loads because they are daunted by the amount of work required in college compared with what they had to do in high school, Matlock says.

The U-M’s higher graduation rates reflect a high degree of satisfaction among students and a greater sense that a college degree is needed to succeed in life, concludes Charles A. Judge, director of Academic Services, LS&A Counseling.

Matlock cautions, however, that graduation rates don’t tell the whole story: they don’t include students who leave the U-M to attend another institution or who leave for personal reasons such as getting married.

“We should be concerned when students leave because they are unhappy with the institution,” he adds.

Selective schools such as the U-M have higher graduation rates than institutions who accept all applicants or who have lower admission standards, Matlock notes.

Among Michigan National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I schools, the U-M has the highest graduation rate for fall 1984 freshmen, according to NCAA survey results published in the Chronicle.

The U-M’s rate is also higher than other Big Ten schools Ohio State University, Michigan State University, Purdue University, University of Illinois, University of Iowa and the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

The U-M’s graduation rate is higher than the University of California, Berkeley, but falls short of the graduation rates of more than 90 percent posted by Princeton University, Stanford University and the University of Notre Dame.

Many institutions don’t publicize their graduation rates. This could change as a result of proposed federal Department of Education regulations requiring colleges and universities to make this information public.

Matlock applauds the move, saying “students and their parents have a right to know graduation rates, how successful schools are at graduating their students.”

A key to increasing retention and graduation rates, Judge says, is student acceptance of a Universitywide norm emphasizing high academic performance.

Comprehensive Studies Program (CSP) Director William Collins says CSP works with first- and second-year students to develop their skills and help them get acclimated so they can progress more smoothly through their academic course work and realize their potential.

Collins notes, though, that to achieve parity of graduation rates for students of all races requires faculty involvement with upperclass students on an individual basis. When faculty work with students on research or a project, they can help the students make connections and help them see their future more clearly and their place within the life of the University.

Matlock says all the pieces of the college experience, including financial aid and a feeling of belonging, have to work together to help students successfully complete their academic programs.

“Climate and how students perceive that climate are extremely important. We have to have a nurturing environment, where all students believe faculty and staff are here to help and encourage them,” Matlock adds.

Whether it be a lack of money, an unfriendly climate or a failure to properly orient students to the University’s academic and non-academic life, “we don’t want people leaving because we as an institution didn’t intervene or students felt there were too many barriers,” Matlock says.

Retaining students has to be pro-active, he says. “We can’t wait until they drop out. We need to look at indicators, such as a financial hold-credit or failure to preregister for the following semester, which suggest the student might drop out.”

Too often when students drop out, they don’t tell anyone they’re leaving. They just disappear, Matlock says.