Despite the uncertainties presented by COVID-19, one certainty remains — Utah’s students are committed to completing their college degrees. I applaud that effort as we approach the end of what has turned out to be an extraordinary and unusual academic year.
As Utah Valley University, or UVU, prepares for what we hope will be a face-to-face commencement ceremony in August 2020, I am profoundly impressed by our students’ ability to persevere and graduate. UVU offers open admissions and alternative pathways to anyone seeking a postsecondary education. We are one of the state’s three dual-mission universities, which combine the community college and university under one roof. We seek to make higher education accessible, affordable and inclusive. But the dual-mission model, with its open admissions and nontraditional student body, is frequently penalized in governmental reports on completion rates.
Completion rates are an important measurement for any college or university and are a major priority for UVU. We welcome all efforts to question and improve our rates, but we refute statistics that don’t count all our students who succeed.
The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, or IPEDS, — the statistics, research and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Education — measures retention and graduation rates primarily by examining the results of first-time, full-time, bachelor’s degree-seeking students. At UVU, only 21% of our students fall into this category. Those who are transfer students, part-time, began in the spring semester, or who are pursuing a certificate or associate degree are not factored into these rates.
Thirty-seven percent of UVU students are first in their families to attend college. Thirty percent are nontraditional (over the age of 25), 81% work, 17% require English remediation, and 17% support at least one child. We are proud to accept anyone who wants to pursue postsecondary education. We seek to expand opportunity for everyone from all walks of life and different levels of “success” in their previous educational experience. As one student recently put it to me after describing her unsuccessful high school career, “I chose UVU because it didn’t care about my past, but wanted me to look to my future.” This vital context to expanding higher education is not factored into standard IPEDS data and is, in fact, handicapped by its narrow measurement. We applaud IPEDS for its newly expanded and more inclusive outcome measure, which includes all students and all programs, and measures completion over eight years rather than six.
If completion by first-time, full-time, bachelor’s degree-seeking students were the only measurement that mattered, we should implement minimum academic standards for admission. Doing nothing else, we could immediately raise our six-year IPEDS graduation rates from 36% to 63% by simply imposing a 2.5 GPA and 19 ACT. But such a move would disproportionately exclude minorities and nontraditional students who want, but don’t have access to, higher education. Many institutions have higher minimum standards, and they perform truly essential roles in Utah and across the country, but UVU accepts anyone who wants to be educated, no matter what route they want to take. This is a more complex, but equally important, mandate.
At UVU, we wholeheartedly embrace the dual mission that the state has defined for us. When we carefully measure the myriad of educational pathways that are available to our students, we have a “success rate” of 65% for 2020. This number includes part-time, transfer, associate degree, and certificate students, as well as those still enrolled after six years and those who have transferred to another college or university. For example, a UVU student who earns a one-year cybersecurity certificate and moves into the workforce is a success. A student who is working full time and earns a degree but takes eight years to do so is a success. A UVU student who completes an associate degree and transfers to another institution is, similarly, a success. These examples are not included in standard graduation rates.
As of 2018-2019, UVU’s IPEDS undergraduate completion rate is 36%. By 2025, UVU’s goal is to reach 45%. Even using the 65% “success rate,” UVU has room for improvement and is actively working to increase our completion rates by removing barriers throughout a student’s educational life cycle. UVU’s completion efforts began in earnest in 2016, and our current four-year completion plan, which began in 2019, focuses on eight priorities that include robust student support processes, professional advising that helps students build a personalized path, learner-centered faculty development, and data-driven interventions. We recently implemented a new first-year advising center dedicated to proactive, holistic, data-informed support — an entire infrastructure built to ensure students have every opportunity to succeed regardless of background.
One of the best parts of my job as UVU president is getting to know student success stories. Brooke Schroeder overcame enormous life challenges and took 12 years to graduate, and is now in a joint JD and Ph.D. program at the University of Nebraska. Josh Taylor, the first in his family to go to college, has been balancing being a dad of four children, working to provide for his family, and going to college for seven years. He is graduating this month in graphic design. Who’s to say that these students and so many others should not have tried higher education? Not only did they complete their education, but they are poised to lead more dignified and productive lives because of UVU.
UVU likes to tell students, “Come as you are. UVU has a place for you.” At a time of increasing inequality, no invitation could be more powerful than this. UVU represents what higher education should be: affordable, open, and inclusive. We believe in capitalizing on human potential, however we find it. We support human aspirations. The narrow measure of completion will never capture this value proposition. But we will persist because it is the right thing to do.
Astrid S. Tuminez is the president of Utah Valley University. She completed three degrees from BYU, Harvard and MIT.