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“If you don’t admit that they can be good students, you
don’t have to take them seriously,” he said.
Another factor may be the traditional mindset of college
administrators. “Universities tend to focus on recruitment of
good students as a way of ensuring academic success,” said
Jack Kay, associate provost at Wayne State University. “They’re
not in the habit of thinking about stop-outs or dropouts as a
source of graduates.”
But at UNM the enthusiasm for Stuart’s approach remains
high. At the request of the university’s regents, his office has
begun to investigate whether its dropout strategy can be
expanded to include current students who are in danger of
leaving.
As the first stage, Stuart has proposed an analysis of
hundreds of dropout transcripts to search for telltale academic
patterns that preceded the decision to drop out. Already, an
informal survey of transcripts has suggested that such patterns
exist. Cynthia Stuart,
David Stuart’s wife and
the dean of admissions
at NewMexico, joined in
the informal survey and
described the results.
“You see a gradual
process,” she said. “It’s
not like you’re looking
at the transcript of a
great student and then
suddenly—boom—he’s
gone. You see the student
taking some incompletes, cutting back his hours, the grades
falling a notch. The student is reducing his involvement in
the university. He is giving these signals long before he finally
leaves, whichmeans there’s an opportunity to take corrective
action.”
If the early warning system succeeds, Cynthia Stuart says,
the student’s adviser could be notified
in time to take that action and
perhaps forestall the departure.
At present, David Stuart said,
that preemptive move is not possible.
“Right now, no one at the university
is calling them up and asking, ‘What’s
going on here? Is there a problem that
we can help you with?’” he said. “We
want to change that.”
In the meantime, the Graduation
Project itself continues to feed
returned students back into the
system. The current group of 246
students includes Arellana Cordero,
the honors student who dropped out
needing only 15 credits to graduate.
After she left the university,
Cordero began raising a family
and built a real estate business in
Albuquerque. By any standard
measure, her life was successful. But
the lack of a degree nagged at her.
“I have always been an overachiever type, and the idea that
I never finished college just bothered me,” she said. “But re-
applying to UNMpresented so many obstacles. Once I even
thought of trying the University of Phoenix (a commercial
institution that offers degrees through correspondence
courses) and then thought, ‘Nah, I can’t do that.’”
When Cordero learned about the Graduation Project
she was startled to learn that it seemed designed to solve the
problems she was facing at UNM. She quickly enrolled and
began taking the classes she needed for a degree. She now
expects to graduate inMay.
And then? “I plan to get my master’s in business
administration,” she said, and laughed. “And right away, this
time.”
u
Robert A. Jones is a former reporter and columnist for the
Los
Angeles Times
.
Nationally, the
six-year graduation
rate for public
universities now
averages about
54 percent.
The University of New Mexico Graduation Project has a lean budget and a small staff, one
of whom is Project Coordinator Vanessa Shields.