Current generation may be first in U.S. history less educated than its predecessors

Published: Saturday, Feb. 12 2011 11:00 p.m. MST

Another state that has faced similar problems in the past and has made some great strides toward adapting to the new-age American is a university just south of Utah's borders, Arizona State University. ASU has a student population of more than 70,000 students — more than twice that of any public university in Utah.

At the same time ASU is succeeding at both increasing its access and diversity, as well as the number of students who graduate each year.

Over the last nine years, ASU's percentage of minority students has grown by 10 percent, now making up more than 30 percent of the student body. At the same time, the retention rate of freshman students has grown eight percent, said Michael Crow, the president of the university. ASU also awarded 45 percent more degrees in 2009-2010 than it did in 2001-2002.

And while places like the University of Utah do have high retention rates, its growth in minorities has been minimal. Only 10 percent of its population is made up of minority students; 10 year ago that number was 7 percent.

Crow said a major reason for the retention and graduation rate increase is the university's change of focus — it has morphed from a faculty-centered facility to a student-centered one.

"If you want to be successful at ASU as dean, as a director or as a chair of a department, we are looking to your success being focused on student success; that is how your success is measured," Crow said.

At the same time, the university has also grown its research department. He said many universities worry about the types of students they are able to bring into the university, but ASU concentrates on the outcomes of the students leaving there.

The university has also switched its school schedule from a two-semester model to a three-semester model, and classes are based on learning outcomes — whether a person has achieved certain goals in the class, like being able to explain different theories of evolution in biology — instead of just time spent in the class. More classes are also being offered online, which has reduced the cost per student.

"We need universities that are adaptive to the challenges," Crow said. "You have to be able to educate at a larger scale, faster speed and across more subjects with a greater depth."

The path forward

Utah is also working on these kinds of goals, though Bill Sederburg, Utah's Commissioner of Higher Education, said it is harder at a state level than at a university level to make systematic changes.

The state's number one priority in its goal of graduating more students is to address retention and graduation rates, he said. The state plans a retreat in March to specifically talk about this issue.

Sederburg said the state is trying to figure out a system where colleges are not just given money based on enrollment, but also on retention and graduation rates. He also said the state is working with colleges to streamline classes so students can achieve a degree faster.

Some other goals the state has outlined for institutions include requiring all students to have graduation plans and declare majors early, reducing unnecessary course-taking, improving transfer policies, using summer semesters to keep on graduation track and providing incentives for full-time enrollment.

Utah Valley University is already working on maximizing the times when students can take classes by opening up more night classes and summer classes, said UVU President Matthew Holland.

Holland said the university is also planning on expanding its distant learning because of tight space at the school. This includes opportunities for students to attend classes remotely and having classes where students will have class online one or two days out of the week instead of in the building.

When considering legislation and policies meant to increase college graduation, Stan Jones, president of Complete College America suggests policymakers ask the following questions: "Will it reduce the time it takes to graduate? Will it help direct students in making an informed, transparent choice, clearly consistent with their aspirations? Will it provide more predictability and structure in order to ease their daily struggles to balance school and jobs?"

He said the reason why America has become a powerhouse in innovation and technology in the past is because of the access and the quality of higher education.

"With so much at stake, today's students need to finish their studies as soon as possible to get on with life," Jones wrote in article this month for the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. "It is irrefutable that for most it is taking too long to graduate and for too many graduation day will never come. More of the same will not produce different results. Leadership by the trustees of American higher education is needed now more than ever."

e-mail: slenz@desnews.com

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