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The University of Virginia,
for example, has a six-year
graduation rate of 93 percent,
and UCLA graduates 85 percent.
In general, highly selective
public universities such as these
maintain graduation rates equal
to those of top private universities.
The majority of public
universities, however, fare
considerably worse. In rural or
poor states, public institutions
have had difficulty raising their
graduation rates above 43 percent.
According to John Gardner,
director of the Policy Center
on the First Year of College at Brevard College, in North
Carolina, many factors contribute to a high dropout rate, but
the demographics of poor, rural states such as NewMexico put
them at a distinct disadvantage.
“In these states the universities have large percentages
of students who come fromminorities, who are the first
generation in their family to attend college, who must work
to pay their college costs, who do not live on-campus,” said
Gardner. “All of those factors affect retention. The white, male,
residential student is a distinct minority at these schools.”
Many public universities have now initiated programs
encouraging students to remain in school. Those attempts
range from the creation of cohort groups among freshmen, to
mentor programs and special advisers for students in trouble.
But few, if any, universities have imitated NewMexico’s
program of retrieving dropouts from the larger community.
Nor have they adopted the Graduation Project’s strategy of
helping students cope with jobs, marriages and children while
they struggle their way toward a degree.
Stuart admits his frustration. “The problem of these
kids trying to cope is national, and that is evident from the
graduation rates,” he said. “But I haven’t been able to sell the
idea. The conversation isn’t being taken up at the large publics
who are having versions of the same problem.”
Stuart attributes the lack of interest to several factors,
including the increasing focus on research at large public
universities and the resulting lack of exposure among senior
faculty to undergraduates. In addition, he says, there is
“convenient denial” of the reality that many departing students
are high-performing.
About 300 Graduation
Project participants
discovered they had
already satisfied all the
requirements for a degree.
Project staff members
helped with the paperwork,
and they graduated.
Update
Back to College
July 2007
T
he GraduationProject at the University of NewMexico
has been in operation for ten years now. AlthoughDavid Stuart, who
founded the project, is no longer there, his “brainchild” is still going
strong. Vanessa Shields, the project coordinator, said that since Stuart
retired, “new staff have to be constantly reminded to keep the word out
there about the project, so students know that we’re there for them.”
Shields, who has been
with the project since 2003,
said that 69 percent of
returning students go on to
complete a bachelor’s degree,
and that their number will
have grown from1,068,
at the time of
National
CrossTalk’s
original article
in 2004, tomore than 1,500
this year. “Each semester we
have between 180 and 260
currently enrolled students,”
Shields said.
The Tuition Assistance
Program, for returning
students whomeet specific
academic standards, has
also expanded. “We increased the amounts because tuition has gone
up significantly,” Shields explained. “We give 50 percent of tuition, to a
maximumof $500 per semester, up to a total benefit to the student of
$2,000.” And there are plans to increase those contributions further.
When Stuart began the project in 1996, he could not find any
examples in the country of
existing programs of the
type he envisioned. But the
Graduation Project now has
a few imitators, including
programs at California State
University, Long Beach, the
University of Texas at San
Antonio, and the University of
WisconsinOshkosh, according
to Shields.
Three years ago we
reported that some 300
students had been helped by
the project to receive their
degrees without even taking
any additional courses. With the right guidance, they were able to
graduate with the credits they had already earned. Since then, more
than 80 additional students have fallen into that category.
Attempts to create an “early warning” system that could
preemptively identify students who are at risk of dropping out have not
yielded useful results. “It’s still in the works,” Shields said. “Right now
there isn’t a pattern that we can identify.” And there are few resources
to commit to such research.The Graduation Project has a minimal
staff that includes one full-time person, a work-study intern, and a
woman who came to work there quarter-time after she retired from the
registrar’s office.
“When this program started, they thought it would fizzle out, but
it didn’t,” Shields said. “They thought that we would catch up to the
demand, but it is steady business, good and bad.This project shows that
there are some kinks, where the university is losing students. But those
students want to come back.”
—Todd Sallo
The Graduation
Project now has a few
imitators, including
programs at California
State University, Long
Beach, the University
of Texas at San Antonio,
and the University of
Wisconsin Oshkosh.
Attempts to create
an “early warning”
system that could
preemptively identify
students who are at
risk of dropping out
have not yet yielded
useful results.