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Helping students 'climb the mountain' of higher education

Editor's note: In advance of our weeklong series on legislative issues, here we explore the persistence necessary to obtain a good education. Sunday, the Deseret News will again focus on eduction — the challenges facing, and possible solutions for, our students — as we kick off our start-of-the-Legislature series. The series will continue Monday as the Deseret News explores other legislative issues that matter to Utah families. Those issues include your money, your health, your rights, your responsibility and your vote.

SALT LAKE CITY — Fewer than half of Utah's college freshmen graduate within six years of consecutive enrollment, many of them falling from the ranks before their sophomore year.

Institutions measure this as retention, or the percentage of students who come back each year. But beneath the numbers lies a problem of student persistence — individual effort toward college completion — that challenges every college and university in the state.

The numbers reveal a sobering trend. Last year, 86 percent of high school graduates said they intended to graduate from college, but only 40 percent of them who didn't leave for a church mission or military service enrolled, according to a recent Utah Foundation report. And currently, only 47 percent of college students end up graduating within 6 years.

On average, 41 percent of Utah's college freshmen who enrolled full time in 2012 did not return in 2013. Retention becomes more difficult for part-time students, about 57 percent of whom did not continue into their second year of college, according to the Utah System of Higher Education.

The big challenge: Balancing studies, work and families.

"Half of our students are working more than 20 hours a week, and that's too much," David Pershing, president of the University of Utah, told the Board of Regents Friday. "Only 11 percent of our students aren't working at all. So we need to understand this when we think about what we're doing to support our students."

At Salt Lake Community College, 84 percent of those who drop out early work an average of 36 hours a week, according to Clifton Sanders, interim provost of academic affairs. Often, it's a logistical challenge, what gets in the way of a higher quality of life through education is life itself, he said.

"Those who leave, they leave in pretty good academic standing. It's just that the barrier is balancing work and family and their educational needs," Sanders said.

Financial struggle

Educators say the main reason students cite for quitting early is financial difficulty. It's a frustrating result because Utah has the highest percentage in the nation of eligible students who don't take advantage of federal financial aid to reduce the cost of education. It was a remarkable $45.5 million in 2013 that students could have claimed to help defer college costs, according to NerdWallet, an online financial consulting group.

The costs of not completing college are rising as the wage disparity increases between those with a college degree and those without one. During a 40-year working life, the median earnings of someone with a four-year college degree are 65 percent higher than those of high school graduates, according to the Utah Foundation report.

"We do have a persistence problem," Pershing said. "At the end, they just get to where they financially can't cut it."

Financial cost isn't the only barrier to graduation. Lack of student preparation and academic shortfall also takes its toll.

"(We've) picked some very practical goals to move forward on. One of them was to reduce the amount of need for remedial math education," said Matthew Holland, president of Utah Valley University, with an enrollment that tops 30,000.

"When we started, only 39 percent of those coming out of the K-12 schools were math-ready," he said. But working with an alliance of K-12 and college educators, the number improved to 49 percent last spring of those entering UVU.

Salt Lake Community College president Deneece Huftalin said educators need to look inward at their institutions as well.

"What I'd like to think about is, what is the institution doing that is creating more barriers for these students?" she said at a recent education forum. "I'm not sure it's all about neighborhood or the family or the culture. I think in many cases, it's about what we're doing to create barriers."

Tuition increases

At Utah State University, with a student body of about 28,700, student financial struggles take a toll.

"After missions, the No. 1 reason why students take some time off is because of finances," according to John Mortensen, assistant vice president for enrollment services and retention.

When adjusted for inflation, tuition over the past five years has increased by more than 20 percent at Utah State, University of Utah, Southern Utah University, Snow College and Dixie State. UVU had a 16 percent increase, Weber State and Salt Lake Community College increased about 14 percent, according to data from the Utah System of Higher Education.

Resources to deal with financial hardship are available, but a large portion of them go unused by prospective college students.

Forty percent of Utah's Pell Grant-eligible high school seniors in 2013 didn't complete an application for federal student aid, more than any other state, according to a report released this month by NerdWallet, the consumer finance advising website.

Utah's low ranking among other states is likely due, in part, to the number of youths departing for LDS Church missions after high school. But the report showed the same trend occurring in every state. Almost half of all American high school graduates in 2013 didn't complete the Pell application, known as FAFSA, leaving about $2.9 billion in free student money unclaimed.

"If you are eligible, you are going to get it," Pershing said. "They just don't apply."

Gianna Sen-Gupta, a higher education analyst for NerdWallet, said some students don't seek financial aid because they're avoiding student debt and don't understand how grants work. Others assume they won't qualify or don't plan on going to college at all because they believe they can't afford it.

"It really depends on your unique situation, which is why we tell students not to ever discount themselves," Sen-Gupta said.

The complexity of the FAFSA, a 100-question online application, is also a turnoff for students and parents, who have to provide tax return information in determining eligibility.

"That doesn't go down so well with some parents," Pershing said.

Utah schools used College Application Week in November and other events to better inform students about the process of applying for financial aid. But limited resources makes it a challenge to overcome misperceptions about financial aid, Sen-Gupta said.

"Some students are too overwhelmed. They find it too confusing," she said. "We're speaking of 17- and 18-year-old students (for whom) this is the first big financial step they're going to have to make in their lives, and it can be completely overwhelming."

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama introduced a proposal to combine federal and state dollars to cover tuition at community colleges for qualifying students. Few details are known about how the program would work and whether it would gain state and congressional approval.

But some educators say it could tip the scale in the favor of students considering quitting school for financial reasons.

"The majority of community college students enroll part time and the majority are working, so life's circumstances could change very quickly," said Jason Taylor, assistant professor of educational leadership and policy at the U. "The idea of free tuition may provide an incentive for students to persist and stay enrolled in college if their circumstances change."

Academically unprepared

Thirteen percent of those who earned a bachelor's degree at USU last spring took a remedial math course. Since 2012, the university has expanded its remedial course offerings, and enrollment in those courses has nearly doubled. Since summer semester last year, 886 students have enrolled in remedial math, according to Mortensen.

The University of Utah is the only institution in Utah that isn't permitted by the Board of Regents to provide remedial classes. Many students who have to take refresher courses do so at other institutions, like Salt Lake Community College. More than half of students who transfer from the college go to the U., according to Sanders.

While having to take refresher courses can contribute to burnout, more significantly, it increases the cost to students and lengthens the time to graduation. And the longer it takes to graduate, the greater chance it won't happen, according to David Buhler, commissioner of the Utah System of Higher Education.

"We know that math is an area where a lot of students get sidetracked on their path to success in college," Buhler said during Friday's Board of Regents meeting. He said that institutions are aligning their objectives with Utah's goal to have two-thirds of its working population with a college degree or certificate in five years. This, he says, will "increase the number of students who persist and graduate through the framework of the 66 by 2020 goal."

Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, is one of several lawmakers hoping to reduce the number of college freshmen having to take remedial coursework. He's introducing a resolution to the Legislature, recommending the Utah State Office of Education require students to take a math course each year they're in high school.

The initiative has drawn widespread support from educators, who hope it would ensure that fewer students would need a refresher once they've entered college, especially if they took time off for a church mission or military service. Many high schoolers currently don't take a math course their senior year, Eliason said.

"By the time they come back, it's been three years since their last math course. They think, 'Well, if this is what college is about, I guess I'm not cut out for it,' and they drop out," Eliason said. "So the goal here is to build confidence by building their skills."

Performance in math isn't the only factor that indicates potential success or failure in completing college. Ruth Watkins, provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at the University of Utah, said students should place an especially strong focus on performing well their first year of college.

"The first semester that you're on campus, the grades that you earn that semester are highly predictive of your life course as a student," Watkins said. "So getting off to a strong start academically in that first semester is quite important."

The role of advisors

While the U. maintains a first- to second-year retention rate of almost 90 percent, the flagship university has a graduation rate of only 59 percent. Watkins said some students drop out later on in college when they fail to decide what to major in.

"Many of those students that are leaving later after a number of semesters have never really quite found the major that they're passionate about," she said. "So we really know that we need to help our students find good academic advising."

Academic advisers, many of whom are faculty, play a large role in helping students avoid dead-end credits, or classes that don't count toward completion of their major. This can be especially critical for students who delay choosing a major, Mortensen said.

"When students remain undeclared for an extended period of time, by the time they get into their major courses, they're going to exceed the 120 credits" needed for graduation, he said. That translates into more money and time in college.

Advisers can also provide much-needed advice for students as they prepare to enter the workforce, according to Pershing.

"Candidly, it's going on a lot today, students are majoring in something they love and adding a second major or minor in something they think will help them get a job," he said.

Advisers and instructors can also spread awareness of social activities that can help students feel a sense of belonging, Mortensen said.

USU administrators are looking at tracking how often students use their student ID to attend on-campus events to see whether there's a connection between social activity and student persistence, Mortensen said.

"You look at the students who are very involved, like student-athletes or student ambassadors or student government, those who are heavily involved in different things, they retain very well," Mortensen said. It has to do with being involved with the university and feeling a part of it."

Finding solutions

The Utah System of Higher Education has asked the Legislature for $15 million to expand institution resources for accommodating student growth. That includes more academic advisers, and it also includes addressing institutional barriers such as bottleneck courses — classes required for graduation that can't accommodate the demand from students.

"One of my biggest concerns is growth," Mortensen said. "We had a record number of applications last year, and we're so far surpassing that this year. We've got to be able to accommodate those students, but obviously it puts pressure on advising, faculty and having an adequate number of courses available."

USU has furthered its research behind course waiting lists during registration, which begins months before classes start. This helps administrators see which classes are filling up the most, and if possible, find additional faculty to teach them.

In an effort to ease the financial burden on students, the University of Utah recently introduced U Futures, a scholarship program for students who get to within 30 credits of graduating but are financially unable to continue. The money is there to help them complete their degrees. The U. also introduced 1,000 new scholarships last year, according to Pershing.

SLCC has also found ways to reduce the cost of college attendance through open-access resources, such as shared textbooks for high volume classes. This saved students an estimated $300,000 in textbook purchases last year, according to Sanders.

Huftalin and Pershing said institutions are continuing to learn why students decide to leave college, and how student persistence is affected by personal or institutional barriers.

"What we need to look at is all along that pathway: Where do we have the potential for students to get frustrated and the pipeline starts to leak?" Huftalin said.

"It's certainly not all on our students at all," Pershing said.

Lisa Hancock sees thousands of incoming freshmen every year. As director of student orientation and transition services at USU, she tries to help students understand the steps they have to take to be successful, but that success doesn't have to rest on their shoulders only.

"It's such a balance," Hancock said. "Ultimately, students are the ones who have to climb the mountain and become stronger for the journey. But the university can certainly orient and coach them."

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

Twitter: MorganEJacobsen