Four-year grad rate lags behind state schools

VCU lags behind University of Virginia, College of William & Mary, Virginia Tech and George Mason with a 30 percent four-year graduation rate. Illustration by Sagal Hassan.

Matt Leonard
Contributing Writer

Last month VCU president Michael Rao delivered his State of the University address, in which he said he considered VCU one of the “big three” universities in the state alongside University of Virginia and Virginia Tech. When it comes to graduation rates, however, VCU lags behind both of those universities and  many others.

Thirty-eight percent of VCU students who enrolled as freshmen in 2008 managed to graduate within four years, according to the State Council for Higher Education for Virginia. This number reportedly fell to 30 percent, according to U.S. News and World Report.

“The university is concerned about their graduation rate and there will be more resources put in place to try and shift that graduation rate up,” said Seth Sykes, associate dean of the University College.

The U.S. News and World Report ranked VCU in September 2013 as the 167th public school in the country. The four Virginia schools ranked ahead of VCU all had higher four-year graduation rates: University of Virginia (87 percent); College of William & Mary (83 percent); Virginia Tech (59 percent) and George Mason (42 percent).

Thirty-four percent of college students who enrolled in 2008 in Virginia graduated in four years, according to SCHEV.

Undeclared students and transfer students (who average 13.1 credit hours per semester) have even lower four-year graduation rates. However, Luke Schultheis, head of Strategic Enrollment Management, said if an undeclared student declares a major before completing 30 hours they will likely graduate with the general population.

Those resources are outlined in the University’s Quality Enhancement Plan, an outline of improvements VCU plans to make if the upcoming 10-year reaccreditation is approved.

“Slightly more than 50 percent of the required resources will be secured by reallocation of current revenue streams or resources. The remainder will be secured through the annual budget process as new recurring funds,” the QEP states.

John M. Wiencek, senior vice provost of administration and strategic initiatives, said much of this reallocation is simply moving around personnel and placing them in positions that will bolster the needs of the QEP.

“We have a large cadre of advisers that will be ‘reallocated’ to the QEP, which simply means that their work assignments and methods for carrying out their advising duties will now be utilizing ideas and concepts mapped out in our QEP and there will be new accountability,” Wiencek said. “Likewise, funds in the online and digital learning area are being reconfigured to address issues in the QEP.  Those two sources account for the vast majority of the reallocation.”

Schultheis said the university will make significant changes to advising in hopes of improving the four-year graduation rate.

The proposed QEP plan shows that $1.4 million will go toward advising over the next two years if the plan is approved. If the QEP is not approved, advising software and university-wide programs are already in place to help students enroll in the right classes and take 15 hours per semester, Schultheis said.

New software programs include the Student Success Collaborative, SALT and a software that allows students to schedule around time constraints. These programs, Schultheis said, are expected to help students enroll in at least 15 hours each semester.

Student Success Collaborative is set to roll out in a few weeks. The program uses data and analytics from students across the country to determine what major a student will be most successful in, Schultheis said. It will also consider past performance in courses the individual student has taken.

“The measure of success would be the engagement between the adviser and the student,” Schultheis said. “We want students to know if they’re not on track to perform.”

The program, Schultheis said, is expected to alleviate one of the root causes of low graduation rates — poor performance in the classroom.

“Some students struggle academically and aren’t able to graduate in four years because their GPA isn’t high enough or they’re not passing required classes,” Sykes said.

Along with underperformance, inability to schedule 15 hours of credits around other responsibilities can keep students on campus longer than four years, Schultheis said.

To help, the university has implemented a new scheduling software to help students work around time constraints, such as jobs or internships. About 9,000 students used the software in the fall to sign up for spring classes, Schultheis said.

It won’t make college cheaper, but it will allow students to make better decisions on loans and signing up for classes. Schultheis said that many students, for example, receive loans larger than they actually need and could use money from a job to pay off tuition costs.

One program that has yielded results already is the “Do the Math” campaign. The campaign, introduced last semester, encourages students to sign up for 15 or more credits in hopes of completing their degree in four years.

The campaign has seen early success. Seventy-three percent of freshmen enrolled in at least 15 credits last semester and remained enrolled in 15 or more this semester, a 12 percent increase from last school year, Schultheis said.

Donning a cap and gown after four years is important for students and the university. For students, it saves money.

Schultheis estimated that a student can save $56,000 by graduating in four years as opposed to six; this includes tuition, transportation, food, housing and other miscellaneous costs over the additional two years.

“From a purely marketing standpoint it’s really important,” Schultheis said. “When looking at schools, families don’t want to think about the possibility of staying more than four years. High four-year graduation rates show that the university has the support services needed to get the student through on time.”

Some students on campus are also aware that the graduation rate is a problem. Political science major Yodit Haile said she thinks the problem is availability of classes.

“They need to have smaller class sizes and more class times available,” Haile said. “I wouldn’t be graduating on time if I hadn’t taken 15 credits worth of summer classes.”

The provost’s office keeps an eye on new students and what general education classes they need, but the real problem lies with major specific courses, Sykes said. With more specialized classes, there are fewer qualified professors available to fill those positions than there are for general education classes.

“Class availability has been made a major priority of the provost’s office,” Sykes said. “The problem really comes when we start to look at what classes to open up.”

Schultheis doesn’t expect to see much change in the university’s graduation rate until the class of 2017 walks across the stage. If current rates of enrollment in 15 or more hours continue, he said he is optimistic the rate will improve.

“We’re on a trajectory and experiencing really dramatic jumps,” Schultheis said. “But these aren’t changes you’ll see in a year.


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