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photo illustration,<b> joshferrin,</b> deseret news
Shutterstock.com photo illustration by Josh Ferrin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Trapper Roderick began college in the fall of 2007. He fell behind in classes after his freshman year and decided to take a break.

Last semester, he enrolled at Utah Valley University, but he could only get into one class and decided it wasn't worth the money.

Finally, this semester, the 22-year-old enrolled at the University of Utah, with hopes to apply for the architecture program in the spring, or in another year. That means that nearly four years after he started his freshman year, he's at least four years away from graduation day.

Roderick's story is not unique. In fact, it's illustrative of a problem the higher education system is facing across the country. While 75 percent of high school graduates start college within two years of graduation, only half of these students complete a degree. For the Hispanic population, the fastest growing demographic in the state, the numbers are even worse: Of every 100 Hispanic high school students in Utah, only four graduate from college.

Public college systems, from Texas to Arizona to California and Maryland, are all having to do more with less. They are dealing with a larger population of students than ever before, at a time in which budgets for higher education are being slashed across the country.

They are also serving a different type of student than a decade ago.

With more students attempting college, many aren't as prepared for the rigors of college life. Sixty percent of students attending community college need to take remedial classes before starting on their degree, said Tom Sugar, with Complete College America, an organization that hopes to encourage states to improve college graduation rates. And because college has become more expensive, a majority of students are also working while going to school, meaning it often takes them longer to get through school. And the longer it takes to obtain a degree, studies show, the less likely students are to make it to graduation day.

"Students' lives are becoming increasingly complicated and for the most part institutions are not changing to meet the need of this new customer," Sugar said.

This comes at a time when a college degree is becoming a must-have in an increasingly competitive global economy, where those without advanced degrees are often left behind.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, America is 13th in the world in percentage of adults who have completed an associate's degree or higher. Currently just 40 percent of the U.S. adult population has a higher degree.

"Unless things change dramatically and quickly, this will be the first generation in our history that will be less educated than their predecessors," Sugar said.

In the next 10 years, 63 percent of new jobs in the U.S. will require some sort of higher degree or meaningful certificate, according to a 2010 study released by Georgetown University. In Utah, 66 percent of new jobs will require a higher degree.

Currently just 39 percent of Utah adults aged 25 to 64 have an associate's degree or higher. Over the last two decades, Utah has in fact dropped from being one of the top states in percentage of adults with college degrees to now being five percent below the national average in the number of residents who hold at least a bachelor degree.

That decline can be attributed largely to Utah's changing demographics over the last two decades, says University of Utah researcher Pam Perlich. The Latino population in Utah is less likely to graduate from high school and those who do are less likely to graduate from college, Perlich said.

"We have a high dropout rate of ethnic minorities," Perlich said. "The achievement gap between the minority and majority population is larger in Utah, and we haven't made much progress there."

A rising university

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."