In our opinion: Improving the U.'s graduation rate

Published: Monday, Dec. 5 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

The University of Utah need to improve its college graduation rate. According to an audit among similar-sized research institutions, the U.'s rate is "comparatively low."

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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We love how the University of Utah achieves important outcomes when it focuses its attention and resources. Last week the Deseret News reported that the U. was the very best university in the country for launching startup companies based on faculty research, beating out MIT once again.

Bryan Ritchie, director of the university's technology commercialization office told how the U. achieved this coveted result. "The first thing is that the University itself has decided that this is a very important objective," said Ritchie. "It's a hard process and requires support from the president on down." He noted that faculty rank and status decisions now factor in research commercialization.

Because the University has shown an amazing capacity to achieve worthwhile goals, we have every confidence that it can now make dramatic strides to improve its graduation rate.

According to a recent legislative audit, the University's six-year graduation rate of 58 percent was among the lowest of the University's peers. We believe that if the University focuses on student retention and graduation as intently as it has on research commercialization that it could quickly compete with its peers on this mission-critical measure.

Those unfamiliar with the calculation of graduation rates sometimes discount Utah's lower rates. They assume that LDS missionary service accounts for the difference. The U.S. Department of Education, however, takes missionaries out of graduation statistics (as they do servicemen). Missionary service does not explain Utah's shortfall.

The legislative auditors recommended boosting graduation rates by raising the University's entrance requirements. Indeed, few things move the needle on graduation rates like making college admissions more exclusive.

The reason is straightforward. The best and brightest high school students, because they have already demonstrated they can handle difficult academic material, figure out how to persist through any college and graduate.

The far more important and difficult job to be done by public higher education, however, is to help those with less-than-stellar academic profiles acquire the attitudes, skills and capacities needed to graduate.

We have argued in the past that graduation rates must improve if Utah hopes to meet its bold goal of having two-thirds of its workforce empowered with certifiable post-secondary training. And we have expressed grave concerns about the genuine college preparedness of Utah's high school graduates.

Nonetheless, we are not ready to concede that increased exclusivity in admissions is the proper response to the University's graduation dilemma. We would much prefer to see the University focus on how to engage, retain and add value to the students it has already admitted.

We even have a concrete suggestion: simplify major requirements.

Large universities tend to proliferate requirements, and every additional requirement poses a new logistical complication for degree completion.

On the other hand, small colleges — colleges that often boast of stellar retention, graduation and placement — tend to simplify major requirements.

Consider Williams College. Often held up as one of the finest colleges in America, an economics major at Williams requires nine four-credit courses (36 hours). An economics major at the U., however, requires 16 three-credit courses (48 hours). And yet Williams alumni consistently go on to the . top graduate programs in the world.

Does anyone believe that an economics degree from Williams is less rigorous than one from the University of Utah, even though it requires 12 fewer credits and seven fewer courses?

Requirement simplification is just one of many proven methods universities can adopt to improve graduation without sacrificing rigor or inclusivity.

We look forward to seeing how the U. improves its graduation rate, with the observation that an inclusive model will prove far more valuable to the state's long-term success than would the creation of an exclusive academic enclave.

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