Study takes aim at college graduation rates

Thursday, May 27, 2004

America's colleges know how to recruit students. Getting them to graduate is harder, a new study finds.

The nation's colleges fail to graduate nearly half of their degree-seeking, full-time freshmen within six years, a new study released Wednesday shows. For some schools like Southeast Missouri State University, the record is even worse.

Only 45 percent of Southeast's entering students in 1996 graduated within six years from the Cape Girardeau school, Southeast's institutional research office said. In contrast, the average graduation rate at four-year colleges and universities was 53 percent, according to a study by the Washington-based Education Trust.

But Southeast Missouri State University officials cautioned that the study doesn't take into account students who transfer to and graduate from other colleges, and those who are part-time students.

The Missouri Department of Higher Education takes into account transfers to other public colleges and universities in the state in calculating graduation rates. A student, for example, who starts at Southeast and ends up transferring and graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia, is counted in Southeast's graduation rate.

On that basis, Southeast's graduation rate currently is 55 percent, a percentage point above the state's goal for Missouri's public colleges with moderately selective admission policies such as Southeast, school officials said.

Six-year degreeThe Education Trust said overall 63 percent of college students at four-year institutions earn an undergraduate degree within six years, the standard benchmark for college completion. That includes students who obtain degrees from different institutions than where they were originally enrolled.

Education Trust, a nonprofit which seeks to improve education from kindergarten through college, released a study that reviewed graduation rates reported to the U.S. Department of Education.

Nearly one out of five four-year institutions in America graduate less than a third of their first-time, full-time, degree-seeking freshmen within six years, the study said.

But Dr. Dennis Holt, vice president of administration and enrollment management at Southeast, said colleges shouldn't be judged solely on graduation rates.

"A university is not a factory," he said. "It is a community of people who come here for a variety of reasons."

Some students start their college education at Southeast and then transfer to other schools that have academic programs that the Cape Girardeau school doesn't offer. "It is not a failing of the institution," he said.

Holt said Southeast's graduation rate is comparable to other regional schools such as Southwest Missouri State, Murray State University, Central Missouri State and Northwest Missouri State University.

Higher education institutions should be held accountable and graduation and retention rates are one judge of that, he said. "But I think it is not legitimate to put a lot of weight on them," Holt said.

Students, he said, benefit culturally and academically from taking college classes whether or not they ever graduate.

Southeast officials said the Cape Girardeau school serves almost as a community college for some area students who want to begin a college education. Cape Girardeau doesn't have a community college.

"A lot of kids in this area come here almost like a trial balloon," said Patricia Ryan, director of institutional research at Southeast. "A lot of the kids just don't stay here."

335-6611, extension 123Southeast Missouri State University

Total: 45.3 percent*

Women: 50.2 percent*

Men: 39 percent*

Blacks: 37.7 percent*

Whites: 46.1 percent*

NationwideThe average graduation rate at four-year colleges and universities is 53 percent.** For blacks, the average rate nationwide is 46 percent.** Nearly one out of every five four-year institutions graduates less than one-third of their first-time, full-time degree-seeking freshmen within six years.**

SOURCE: * From Southeast Missouri State University, ** From the Education Trust report released Wednesday. Graduation rates reflect students who entered college in 1996 and graduated within six years.

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