UNL four-year grad rate lowest in Big 12

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Stories and photo by Rachel Albin

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is described as a four-year institution, but for the majority of students here, four years aren’t enough.

Brandi Kawamoto was one of those students. Now a graduate student in fine arts, Kawamoto was an undergraduate for six and a half years. Two years of community college yielded less transfer credit than anticipated and she took four and half years to get through the university.

Kawamoto’s story of delayed graduation is common. UNL’s four-year graduation rate is 29.4 percent, according to UNL’s 2010-2011 Fact Book . This latest number tracks fall 2006’s first-time, full-time freshmen.

Students are failing to graduate in four for a variety of reasons: they work, get internships, throw themselves into time-consuming projects and study abroad. They move away, get married, join the military, or start full-time careers. They misunderstand requirements. Others simply aren’t prepared or motivated for college and drop out.

Getting roughly a third of students through college in four years is common among UNL’s Big 12 peers, but graduation rates are much higher in the Big Ten Conference, which Nebraska joins next year.

Prestige and the graduation rate

Nebraska’s four-year graduation rate is the lowest in the Big 12, according to a report by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Iowa State’s graduation rate for 2005’s freshmen, 33 percent, wasn’t far off. Baylor University comes out ahead with a four-year graduation rate of 47.3 percent, based on 2003’s freshman class.

Big Ten four-year graduation rates include 50 percent at the University of Illinois and 75 percent at Michigan State University (based on 2002’s freshman class).

“It has nothing to do with the conference,” said Bill Nunez, director of Institutional Research and Planning at UNL. “It has everything to do with the entering class,”

Nebraska’s 63 percent acceptance rate in fall 2008 was actually lower—more selective—than Michigan State’s 70 percent , but the difference in population was huge. Nebraska received 9,709 applicants and accepted 6,122. Michigan State had 25, 589 applicants and accepted 17, 919. Michigan also has more than one public, major research institution, unlike Nebraska.

However, freshmen at Michigan performed better in high school than those entering UNL. Of Michigan State’s freshman of 2008, 31 percent were in the top 10 percent of their classes in high school. At UNL, that figure was 25 percent.

“You can have a good size student body and still be exclusive in Michigan, and here, if we were very exclusive we’d be down to 10,000 students fairly fast,” said Mary Werner, associate director of Institutional Research and Planning.

There are tradeoffs between exclusivity and inclusiveness, Nunez said. With more exclusive admissions standards, a university obtains better-prepared students who are motivated to succeed. The result is higher graduation rates and more honors conferred on those students, raising a university’s level of prestige. A university with this type of student body can also concentrate resources, since it wouldn’t have to offer much in the way of lower-level or deficiency-filling classes.

But with more exclusivity, potential students are left out. With less stringent admissions standards, a university accepts a mixed pool of students, not all of whom are fully prepared for college or are motivated to study. Many more of them than at an exclusive school will eventually drop out. But others won’t.

“Law of averages, you’ll catch a student or two, or many, that would never have had an opportunity, and they never could have shined, but they do,” Nunez said.

The long and winding road

Graduation rates also reflect students’ diverse personal goals. At a school with a lower four-year graduation rate like UNL, perhaps not everyone is looking to get out in four years, or they find that life gets in the way.

Werner said students have many goals, and sometimes graduation isn’t the biggest one.

Although just 29.4 percent of UNL’s freshmen of 2006 donned caps and gowns last May, many of their classmates will do so in the next few years.

Four years after entering as freshman, about 88 percent of students who started at UNL are either still enrolled there or at another college, or they already graduated from UNL or elsewhere, according to the Voluntary System of Accountability, to which most U.S. colleges report data. By 2012, it’s likely a bit more than 60 percent of the freshman class of 2006 will have obtained their degrees from UNL. The freshman class of 2004 graduated 64.2 percent of students within six years.

“Honestly, a lot of students take six years to graduate,” Werner said. “It’s not all that unusual.”

The four year plan

Students who graduate in four years flat do so not only because of preparedness and motivation, but often because they know what they want to do and stay the course of one major their whole college career, Werner said.

The wandering approach to majors can stack up a lot of hours without resulting in a degree. UNL’s last 15 years of graduates took an average of 140 credit hours, Werner said, though most programs require just 120 to 125 hours to graduate.

More than class

Some students know what they want to do but don’t graduate in four years because they take extra time to get experience in their chosen fields. While beneficial, the pursuit can be time-consuming. Some majors stress hands-on experience and internships more than others. Theater is one degree where experience counts.

Kawamoto said that most theater students take more than four years to graduate. For them, school is not just class but also long hours of staging productions: homework and perhaps a part-time job are balanced with four hours a day of set and prop construction or rehearsal.

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Students typically work on two university-produced shows a semester, Kawamoto said, but the particularly dedicated often do three. That’s in addition to side projects with the film school, local theaters and the student-run production company, Theatrix.

“You have to build up your portfolio because that’s what we’re going off of when we leave here,” Kawamoto said. “It’s not really about the grades, or the degree itself, even though that’s nice. It’s really about the body of work that you’ve built up.”

With so much on a theater student’s plate, she described taking more than 15 credit hours in one semester as “suicide.”

The average UNL student simply doesn’t take enough hours per semester to graduate in four years. Werner said the average student class load is about 13.7 hours, short of the 15 one needs to take each semester for four years to graduate on time in a program that requires 120 hours.

Even students who sign up for 15 hours can run into trouble.

“Honestly, I don’t think anybody ever graduates in four years without taking summer clases,” Werner said, because students often run into at least one class that is overwhelming, resulting in a dropped class or other stumbling block.

Summer classes are one way to get out earlier, but Kawamoto said this isn’t for everyone. The few summer classes offered in theater tend to be lower-level, she said, ruling out that option for upperclassmen who have already passed those classes and finished their general education requirements. Students in other fields take internships during summer vacations.

Learning to compromise, negotiate

Creating a long-term plan around classes that aren’t offered every semester can also be a challenge for students. Some theater classes on specialized subjects aren’t offered frequently, Kawamoto said, perhaps every couple of years, but students wait for them to learn more about their areas of interest. Not all technical theater majors want to focus on the same aspects of the craft.

“I don’t want to take three lighting classes,” Kawamoto said.

Sometimes, she said, theater students ask professors to open sections of classes that weren’t originally slated for that semester.

That proactive approach is one that long-time adviser Dennis Brink recommends. Brink, a professor of animal science, has been an adviser for 31 years and is the coordinator of advising in the Department of Animal Science.

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Although Brink said it’s essential for advisers to understand requirements backward and forward, he wants students to take matters into their own hands. The crux of advising isn’t choosing classes, he said, it’s presenting a range of options within the requirements. That way, students enter the classes with the right material and instructors for them and they learn to make choices.

“It’s walking the line of doing it for them, making the decision and encouraging them to think on their own and make the decision,” Brink said.

Proceed with caution

Some UNL students map out their own plans to complement those of their advisers, while others do it out of mistrust.

Kawamoto said it’s common in her area of study for older students to informally advise underclassmen who aren’t sure their assigned advisers fully understand the system.

Werner said advisers need better training. Advising varies by college and major: some students see full-time advisers, while others have advisers who also juggle teaching.

Advisers do make mistakes sometimes, and students have found themselves missing necessary credits just before graduation.

“I’ve heard that story,” Nunez said. “I hate that stuff because that’s really unacceptable.”

Students can either suffer through these situations or try to negotiate them away. Brink’s goal is to get students to a point where if they find their plans don’t pan out, they create new ones and justify them to their advisers.

Nunez said ultimately the responsibility is on the student, but the university continually tries to improve advising. Recently, the administration simplified general education requirements. The old guidelines upperclassmen still follow are particularly difficult to understand, Nunez said.

“I have two master’s and a Ph.D. and I cannot figure out how I’d graduate from this institution in four years (on the old system),” he said.

The freshman class of 2009 was the first to start their degree tracks with a new, streamlined general education plan in which approved classes count for the same requirements in all of UNL’s colleges.

Though this change makes one aspect of advising easier, Nunez and Werner said the jury is still out as to how it might affect the four-year graduation rate down the line.

“Everything is so incremental,” Werner said. “There’s a little bit of reaction from every kind of decision and it’s really hard to determine which decision makes the biggest impact.”

Nunez said the fact that advisers sometimes miscount students’ credit hours or make other errors that hold them back is the institution’s fault. But students should go beyond complaining to friends and speak up to work out problems, even seeking recourse at higher levels of the academic hierarchy if necessary.

“If they don’t, we don’t know about it and we can’t do anything about it,” Werner said, mentioning that her daughter’s boyfriend successfully struck a deal with a department chair when his adviser miscounted credits. “Don’t just give up and take another whole semester to graduate.”

Kawamoto also found that piping up can get a problem solved. During the last semester of her undergraduate career, a class she needed to graduate was full. At first, the instructor told her she couldn’t enroll. Kawamoto started the semester without the class, but later mentioned that it was delaying her graduation by another semester. The instructor quickly gave her an override so Kawamoto could graduate.

Kawamoto said her long undergraduate career had its benefits, but wasn’t without drawbacks, either. Patience was taxed, she said, and continuing took hard work.

“No matter what, you’re getting experience here,” she said. “But at the same time, it’s keeping you from hitting the real world.”

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