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A photo of a line of U graduates on the Northrop Mall.

The University announced that for the Twin Cities campus, the percentage of students graduating in four years increased to 44.9 percent in 2007, up from the 2006 rate of 41.1 percent.

Video icon. To learn more about steps the U is taking to increase graduation rates, watch the University News Service video.

Graduation rates continue to rise on Twin Cities campus

Four-year graduation rate now near 45 percent; six-year rate up to 63.6 percent

By Rick Moore

December 14, 2007

As the University of Minnesota continues to enhance its undergraduate experience, the payoffs are becoming readily apparent in rising graduation rates on the Twin Cities campus.

The percentage of students graduating in four years increased to 44.9 percent in 2007, significantly up from the 2006 rate of 41.1 percent. In addition, the five-year graduation rate increased to 60.5 percent from 58.2 percent and the six-year rate has climbed to 63.6 percent, up from 61.1 percent.

The gains on the Twin Cities campus continue an upward trend in graduation rates over the past two decades. As recently as nine years ago the four-year graduation rate was under 30 percent, and 15 years ago the rate was less than 20 percent.

Given those flagging numbers, 45 percent is a significant accomplishment.

"That's an all-time high, as far as we know, for the University," said Craig Swan, vice provost for undergraduate education.

"[But] it's not where we need to be," he added. "We've announced very aggressive goals that would take us to a four-year graduation rate of 60 percent, a five-year graduation rate of 75 percent, and a six-year graduation rate of 80 percent. But we are absolutely on track to meet those goals, and that's the right and important thing to do for students."

Swan stresses that while the gains of recent years are impressive, more work needs to be done. "This takes continued effort," he said. "This is not a case where we can relax. This is a case where we need to sustain and reinforce our commitment to student success."

Swan highlighted manifestations of that commitment in a presentation to the Board of Regents' Educational Planning and Policy Committee meeting on Thursday, December 13. In recent years the University has implemented a host of new programs aimed at increasing retention and graduation rates and, in general, enhancing the undergraduate student experience. (In fact, the U has invested about $61.4 in student initiatives over the last four years, noted Thomas Sullivan, senior vice president of academic affairs and provost.)

Examples include assuring affordable access for students with the greatest financial need, through efforts like the Founders Free Tuition Program; supporting the transition to college life with initiatives like the yearlong Bridge to Academic Excellence program and an expanded Welcome Week (to be initiated in fall 2008); improved academic advising; expanded career services, including the online GoldPASS program that connects students and employers; an increased emphasis on undergraduate research opportunities; expansion of freshman seminars and the University Honors Program; and a new emphasis on writing, through a first-year writing program and new writing studies department.

The U is also committed to "globalizing" the undergraduate degree. As Swan explained, this is a two-way process, which involves bringing more international undergraduate students to the Twin Cities campus and sending more students abroad for study. In the last nine years, the number of students studying abroad from the Twin Cities campus has doubled, he said, and the goal is for 50 percent of all students to choose that option.

The committee also had the chance to watch Doug Ahlgren, a sophomore in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, demonstrate the benefits of the U's new Graduation Planner--a state-of-the-art online tool that students began using this semester. Ahlgren showed how the planner lists degree requirements and detailed course information, including suggestions as to the best semesters to take certain classes based on the student's needs. The new tool is user-friendly and "very easy to work with," said Ahlgren, who called it "one of the most useful tools for graduating in four years that I've come across."

Changing a campus culture

Years ago, when the graduation rates for the Twin Cities campus languished, it was assumed that the campus was a victim of special circumstances--an overabundance of commuters, students who worked too much on the side, and students who maybe were distracted by life in the Cities.

To some extent, according to Swan, those notions functioned as a built-in excuse that kept people from addressing the problem. He said that a commitment to timely graduation traces back to when Nils Hasselmo was president and the U "recognized and confronted the fact that its systems were not working the way they should for students. And we've taken a number of steps since then to ensure that the undergraduate experience we offer students is absolutely the best experience that we can [offer]."

The Twin Cities campus has indeed become less of a commuter campus. More than 80 percent of freshman now live on campus (compared to about 60 percent a decade ago), and only 35 percent of students in 2006 identified themselves as commuters (compared to 60 percent in 1980).

But Swan credits much of the progress in graduation rates to two things: a recognition by the entire University community that timely graduation is important, and making clear to students the University's expectations for them. Another key was the restructuring of tuition in 2002 so that students taking more than 13 credits receive additional credits free of charge. "As a friend said, 'A student would be foolish not to take 15, 16, 17 credits a semester; those extra three or four credits are free,'" Swan said.

Swan stresses that while the gains of recent years are impressive, more work needs to be done. "This takes continued effort," he said. "This is not a case where we can relax. This is a case where we need to sustain and reinforce our commitment to student success."

There are other reasons for students to want to graduate in four years, not the least of which is the potential financial gain. In addition to paying less for tuition, those students get out into the workforce earlier, Swan said. "They get on career ladders at an earlier stage, and so they're always one or two steps ahead of friends who may have taken longer to graduate."

He quipped that, "The U should be an important part of [students'] life, but it should be a part of their life." And to people who say that the college years are the best years of one's life, Swan said he hopes that's not true. "If it's all downhill after graduation, that's not much of a future."

Related reading: The write way to learn: New baccalaureate writing initiative to be essential for every student