Thursday, May 27, 2004

Graduation rates bleak, but NKU has a plan

Miami U. a success, while others failing

By Karen Gutierrez
The Cincinnati Enquirer

College graduation rates are dismal throughout the country, a national group says. And in Kentucky, the worst record belongs to Northern Kentucky University.

NKU President James Votruba said he is "scratching his head" over a five-point drop in the school's graduation rate for 2003. That year, only 33.1 percent of NKU students graduated within six years of starting college, compared with 37.8 percent in 2002.

"It surprised me, and it troubled me," Votruba said. "We believe those numbers need to be much higher, and we intend to make investments to assure they are higher."

That should be happening everywhere, says the Education Trust, a nonprofit watchdog group based in Washington. In a report released Wednesday, it said only about 63 percent of the nation's college students graduate within six years, with minority students particularly likely to drop out or take longer.

In some cases, however, universities with similar student bodies have far different graduation rates, indicating colleges can take steps to improve, the organization said.

In this region, it singled out Miami University of Ohio for praise. Its 81 percent graduation rate is well above the national average.

Miami attributes its success in part to an extensive tutoring and academic intervention program. Students meet with academic advisers who are based in residence halls. And 65 percent of Miami's freshmen are taught by full-time faculty instead of graduate assistants.

It's tough to pinpoint what happened to NKU's graduation rate last year, Votruba said. Before then, the school had been on an upward trend, with its rate hitting 40.5 percent in 2001, records show.

NKU differs from other Kentucky colleges in ways that influence its rate, Votruba says.

For example, 90 percent of its students live off-campus, 30 percent attend only part-time and 85 percent work at least 20 hours a week.

At commuter universities in metropolitan areas, students tend to have more adult responsibilities and more potential distractions, Votruba said.

Dione Smith is an example. The 24-year-old NKU student already has been in college for six years, with another year and a half to go.

She is the single mother of a 2-year-old son and must work full time, she says. That means she usually can take only two classes per semester.

She will earn a degree in speech communication, she says. It just won't be in six years.

"I don't want to be a statistic," said Smith, a Fort Mitchell resident. "I've been at this six years, and I'm not going to quit now."

NKU's graduation rate - and those of colleges around the country - is also affected by broader trends. These include a senior year of high school that doesn't require students to stay focused on college preparation, Votruba said.

Kentucky students, for example, can graduate and go to college without taking any math their senior years.

College is open to nearly anyone in the United States, which is a good thing, Votruba said. But it also means some students arrive seriously unprepared.

At NKU, nearly half the freshmen each year must take at least one remedial course covering material they should have learned in high school. Of students who must take three such classes, more than 90 percent drop out, Votruba says.

NKU is attacking its graduation problem on several fronts. Perhaps most significantly, this fall it will begin turning away some unprepared students due to space constraints.

Then, in the fall of 2005, it will establish a minimum composite ACT score for admission. Grades and class rank also will be considered. Those who do not make the cut will be steered toward Gateway Community and Technical College or required to catch up through a new summer program at NKU.

Finally, the university plans to keep a closer eye on struggling students by expanding an early warning system that identifies those in trouble. It also hopes to get students into specific majors earlier, and set them up with faculty advisers within each college. Currently, only the College of Business has such an advisement program.


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