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Laura Seitz, Deseret News archives
In this file photo taken May 8, 2009, graduating students line up for the University of Utah graduation ceremony.
Large percentages of students do not appear college ready.

SALT LAKE CITY — Too few students at the University of Utah graduate compared to other competitive research institutions, according to a legislative audit released Tuesday.

While schools like Pennsylvania State and the University of Washington have graduation rate percentages in the 80s, the U.'s six-year graduation rate was 58 percent for students who enrolled in 2003, according to the report.

Higher Education Appropriation Subcommittee chairmen, Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, and Rep. Michael Morley, R-Spanish Fork, requested the Office of the Legislative Auditor General investigate their concerns about graduation rates and excess credit hours at the state's universities. Auditors presented their findings to the Legislative Audit Subcommittee on Tuesday morning.

Among 22 competitive schools, "The U.'s graduation rate ranks third from the bottom," audit supervisor Janice Coleman told the subcommittee. "The college readiness of many enrolled U. students is comparatively low in certain areas."

The audit examined ACT college entrance exam numbers and determined that too-low admission standards coupled with an unprepared prospective student pool were main contributors to the low rates. Auditors recommended the university do more to beef up college admissions standards since "many enrolled students appear to be ill-prepared."

William Sederburg, commissioner of higher education, responded to the report, stating he agreed the completion rates need to improve, but there's more to it than test scores and preparation.

"College completion is a complex issue with a myriad of factors coming into play. The audit addresses college readiness, but even that has many facets," he wrote.

Sederburg went on to state that students marrying young and working while going to school are factors other schools don't deal with to the degree the U. does.

"We believe 75 percent of our students are working at least 30 hours (a week)," Dave Pershing, senior vice president of academic affairs at the U., told lawmakers. "We have many more women who drop out during their academic program than would be typical of a major research university."  

The report did address one cultural phenomenon commonly believed to affect graduation rates: LDS missions. The audit found that while droves of freshmen leave college after a semester or two to embark on missionary service, missions aren't enough to explain the disparity between the U.'s graduation rates and other universities. When the data is broadened to eight years, the U.'s rate still "does not move the U of U into the top half of these very competitive universities."

What's more, BYU — which wasn't part of the audit since it's a private institution — has a six-year graduation rate of 77 percent and even more students leaving on missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In studying graduation rates, the audit examined the ACT scores for the bottom 25 percent of enrolled students at 17 competitive public universities. It focused on those students, the report states, because they are the most likely not to complete college.

The U.'s ACT math scores for its bottom 25 percent was 20 or less. The highest possible is a 36. That put it in last place with the University of Hawaii among the 17 schools auditors looked at. The U.'s English score was 21 or less for that same group, tying it for second to last place with Colorado State, University of Illinois and the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Meanwhile, Penn State's bottom 25 percent had math and English scores of 25.

Sederburg stated the Utah System of Higher Education is working to address college readiness through scholarship programs and outreach efforts like the Regents' Scholarships, Utah Scholars Initiative and conferences that teach junior high and high school students how to be prepared.

"Some of the recommendations are already in the process of being implemented," Sederburg wrote.

The school has already crafted a more holistic approach to college admissions which will weigh high school course rigor and GPA higher than they were in the past, said Mary Parker, associate vice president of enrollment management at the U. That system will go into effect next fall.

"That was just the first step," she said. "We understand and we believe that we need to continue to review our admission standards."

The university is supportive of the governor's Women in Higher Education task force, which will work on college retention for women, who drop out of college in greater numbers than men in the state.

Lawmakers Tuesday were concerned about a perceived dilemma within the audit's recommendations. Higher education officials and business leaders have been touting the need for more Utahns with four-year degrees in the state by 2020, but that would be difficult if admission standards were increased at the U. to the point that the number of bachelor's degrees handed out decreased significantly.

Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, called it a "real conundrum."

"It appears that that movement would be to push even more people in, and if we're not getting people that are qualified now and we're pushing more in I would think that they would be even less qualified. So I worry about that," he said.

While the U.'s graduation rates were considered low, the state's other public universities fared better when compared with similar schools.

Utah State University had a top graduation rate among five noncompetitive public research institutions with 55 percent. Weber State and Southern Utah University performed in the middle of the pack when compared to similar schools.

Parker said the university will continue to look forward in refining its admissions standards while also addressing very real challenges students face.

"There is a human element. …There are things from a student perspective that everyone needs to recognize," Parker said. "They have nothing to do with the numbers."

E-mail: mfarmer@desnews.com

Twitter: mollyfarmer