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College retention rates

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah System of Higher Education has seen the future and that future needs a lot more people to graduate.

A recent study from Georgetown University highlights a huge gap between where Utah is and where it needs to be — a gap that inspired the Utah State Board of Regents to create what they call the "Big Goal."

The Georgetown study, "Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018," estimates that by 2018, new jobs in Utah requiring postsecondary education and training will increase by 202,000. But jobs for high school graduates and dropouts will increase by only 97,000. This means that 66 percent of all jobs in Utah — about 1 million jobs total — will need employees with a higher education degree or certificate.

The Utah State Board of Regents snapped into action with the 2010 Report of the HigherEdUtah2020 strategic plan and set its "Big Goal." If Georgetown says Utah needs 66 percent of its workers to have a postsecondary degree or certificate by 2018, then the Utah System of Higher Education will reach that goal — but by 2020 to be safe.

But this may not be so easy.

The 2010 Report found that currently only about 49 percent of first-time, full-time freshmen will have a bachelor's degree within six years. And only 40 percent of first-time, full-time students seeking an associate degree will finish within three years.

Nationally, according to ACT college-retention figures used in the 2010 Report, the first-to-second-year retention rate is 64 percent for two-year colleges and 72 percent for four-year public colleges.

Utah's average retention rates are 54 percent for two-year colleges and 63 percent for four-year public colleges.

"A two year degree is still better than an incomplete four-year degree," said Holly Braithwaite, director of communications for the Utah System of Higher Education. Associate degrees as well as certificates count toward the 2020 'Big Goal,' Braithwaite says. A completed degree also puts a graduate in a better position for a job because it shows the ability to complete tasks.

The report says that retention efforts are three to five times more cost-effective than recruiting new students. The 2010 report also lists reasons why people might leave college early, from financial concerns to a lack of direction to poor academic performance.

Retaining students facing these challenges requires intervention by counselors and advisors, the 2010 report recommends. "We need to improve our completion rates," said Cameron Martin, associate commissioner for economic development for the Utah System of Higher Education. "But how an institution measures and goes about doing that really depends upon the type of institution. It's a different approach if you are a Salt Lake Community College than if you are at the University of Utah, for example."

But in general, one way to increase retention and completion rates is to reduce the amount of time it takes to graduate. Complete College America, a nonprofit organization that focuses on college completion rates, found that the longer it takes to graduate, the more likely a student will get burned out or run out of money. The 2010 Plan lists several ways completion rates could be improved by reducing the time it takes to graduate, including requiring graduation plans of students and an early declaration of a major. The plan also recommends that colleges ensure students take fewer courses that are not relevant to a specific degree, that credits between state schools are made easier to transfer and the college administrators encourage students to go full-time.

"The 2020 'Big Goal' for completion is ambitious, but not one that is unachievable," said Braithwaite. "This will put us on par with the rest of the nation and is vital for the economic future of Utah."

e-mail: mdegroote@desnews.com