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Utah graduation rates lagging

Barely more than half of the state's students graduate in 6 years, according to study

Utah is lagging behind on its promise to deliver college degrees to students, as just more than half make it to graduation day, a new report shows.

The more than 1 million students who will enter college this year most likely anticipate earning a degree at some point and "are not thinking in terms of failure," Kevin Carey, co-author of "Diplomas and Dropouts: Which Colleges Actually Graduate Their Students (and Which Don't)" said Tuesday during a conference call with media.

In the report released Tuesday, researchers with the American Enterprise Institute expose a dramatic variation in completion rates among nearly 1,400 colleges and universities nationwide. Although Utah's rates fall within the national average, the report's authors believe there is room for a marked improvement among institutions with similar admissions criteria and students.

Utah Commissioner of Higher Education William A. Sederburg said he believes the state's schools can do better, and that there is a task force in place working on solutions to increase retention and graduation rates. He said rates might even be lower than reported because not all four-year schools are included.

Data from the U.S. Department of Education, gathered from the 2001 freshman class, was used to examine graduation rates across schools with similar levels of admissions criteria, in categories from "noncompetitive" to "most competitive."

Brigham Young University boasted one of the top five graduation rates among very competitive schools such as Willamette and University of California at Davis, reporting that 78 percent of its students graduated after six years.

Utah State University also landed among the top five noncompetitive schools, listing a 45 percent graduation rate among its 13,000-plus students. However, other schools in Utah seemed to be further behind peer institutions, with the University of Utah, designated a more competitive school, graduating 56 percent, while Southern Utah University reports a 41 percent rate and Weber State University a 29 percent graduation rate in 2007. The latter two schools are considered noncompetitive.

National results indicate that fewer than 55 percent of first-time students at the average four-year college graduate within six years, and at many institutions, students have less than a one in three chance of earning a degree — even as they spend thousands of dollars on tuition and go thousands of dollars in debt.

"Such differences suggest that while student motivation, finances, and ability matter greatly when it comes to college completion, the practices of higher education institutions matter, too," said Frederick M. Hess, lead author of the report.

With many schools in the nation heading into budget cuts of 15 percent or higher, Carey suggests that higher education institutions make maximizing graduation rates a priority, and find ways to continue offering funding for financial aid and student support services.

"We're definitely advocating for more advising assistance," Sederburg said, adding that the lack of funding really hurts in those areas. Each campus in Utah, he said, has its own plan and the system is working with K-12 schools and districts to prepare students better for college, as "a lot of the lack of completion is due to math classes."

Hundreds of institutions fail to graduate a majority of their students in six years, yet the report's authors point out that these colleges and universities still receive tens of billions of dollars from taxpayers every year. Given the current fiscal constraints and tight budgets, voters and public officials should be aware of institutions that are not accomplishing their most basic task of graduating students, according to Carey.

"At a time when growing unemployment disproportionately affects workers without a degree, it is critical that this information is available and accessible so that consumers can make informed decisions," he said.

The data, however, are not intended to be a measure of quality for American institutions as graduation rates would alternatively rise if standards were lowered. The report calls for broader exploration of postsecondary outcomes, while working also to preserve academic performance.

"We have to do a better job at getting the people who are already in school to complete their degrees," Carey said. "There is great potential for improvement."

E-MAIL: wleonard@desnews.com