Many factors influence college graduation rates

By Roger Bowen

Member institutions within the University of Maine System rank low nationally for their graduation rates.  Collectively, UMS institutions’ four-year graduation rates rank 39th nationally. Four-year graduation rates are especially poor: UMaine’s (Orono) is 36%, Augusta’s is 7%, Farmington’s is 41%, Fort Kent’s is 22%, Machias’s is 16%, Presque Isle’s is 11% and Southern Maine’s only 10%. All figures here are taken from the Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) survey, which requires every institution of higher learning to self-report annually in a variety of areas.

Since more and more students are “stopping out,” that is, taking the occasional year off during college to earn money or to rethink career options, six-year graduation rates are often more realistic. The figures here for UMS schools are better: UMaine 60%, Augusta 16%, Farmington 59%, Fort Kent 33%, Machias 38%, UMPI 30% and USM 33%. Only UMaine’s and Farmington’s rates exceed the national average (58%). Except for Augusta, which graduates 23% after eight years (7% better than the six-year rate), the percentage increases in eight-year graduation rates for the remainder of the UMS member institutions is slight.

Trying to make sense of these comparatively dismal graduation rates requires consideration of several other factors. One is the first to second year retention rate: how many first-year students reenroll as sophomores. At Orono the percentage is 77% for full-time students, 35% for part-time; at Augusta 49% for FT, 43% for PT; at Farmington it is 75% for full-time students (no PT data are provided); at Fort Kent 64% for FT, 50% for PT; at Machias 76% for FT, 20% for PT; for UMPI, 51% FT and 37% PT; and for USM 65% for FT and 56% for PT. One obvious conclusion to be drawn: retention is better when students begin university as full-time students.

Another factor explaining poor graduation rates at UMS schools is the “transfer-out” rate. Most colleges and universities invest substantial sums to attract students, so anytime students transfer to another institution represents a substantial loss of investment. Often college-bound high school students will apply to and be accepted by many universities and have to settle on their second or third choice because they were rejected by their top choices. If a UMS school student performs well during his/her first year, this same student might leverage good grades at a UMS school and reapply to what had been earlier the first choice college as a transfer student, which may be in another state. UMaine’s transfer out rate was 29%, Augusta’s 26%, Fort Kent’s 32%,  Machias’s 30% , USM’s 40% (Farmington and UMPI did not report their transfer out rates).

Students also transfer because their interests changed early during college and they decided that one of the UMS schools was not sufficiently strong in their major. Alternatively, some students, at say Machias or Augusta, may have transferred within the UMS to, say, UMaine or USM. Or they could have transferred to an out-of-state college or even to a private college in Maine. I know of no data bank that shows to which college a student transferred and whether he or she later completed university. Regardless, when a high percentage of unhappy or unchallenged students leave for another school, graduation rates are affected negatively.

Comparing UMS’s seven universities’ four-year graduation rates with those of Colby College (86%) or Bates (88%) or Bowdoin (88%) is as telling as it is unfair. Maine’s private colleges are highly selective and will reject more students than they accept. Retention from first year to second for Colby is 92%, for Bates it is 95% and for Bowdoin it is 98%. Students who are admitted into these prestigious schools understand they are fortunate and, thus, seldom consider transferring. Maine’s public universities, however, have high student acceptance rates and low rejection rates, thus ensuring, unlike Colby, Bates and Bowdoin, that higher education is a public good that is accessible to the many rather than to the privileged few.

The percentage of students who qualify for a federal Pell grant is a rough indicator of the student/student’s family’s ability to afford higher education. The contrast between private and public Maine higher education students is stark. The percentage of students who qualify for Pell grants at Bowdoin is 13.8%, at Bates it is 11.1%, and at Colby it is 10.8%. At UMaine the figure is 37%, at Farmington 46%, at Fort Kent 32%, at USM 36%, at Machias 41%, at UMPI 36% and at Augusta 57%. A rough correlation likely exists between relative wealth/poverty and graduation rates: students from families with limited means tend to enroll at UMS campuses rather than at Colby, Bates, or Bowdoin, are less likely to re-enroll in the second year and are less likely to graduate in four or six years.

Graduation rate is an output measure, while relative wealth/poverty is an input measure. Other input measures are high school grade point averages, SAT/ACT scores, family background (especially whether one or both parents attended university or college), race, geography and resources dedicated to high school instruction (property tax). Unequal preparation for college, where students from poor rural areas having high schools with comparatively few resources dedicated to instruction, is often a determinant on where a student goes for higher education. Poorer students from rural areas often attend a public university, wealthier students from urban areas attend private colleges.

In years past, I have given classes at Bates, Colby, Bowdoin and University of Maine; and I taught at Colby College for 14 years. I’ve studied the cars in all four institutions’ student parking lots and only at UMaine did my own old clunker seem to fit in. Similarly, the style of dress, student manners, civic attitudes and high school preparation differ enormously among students from public universities and private colleges. Many of my Colby students graduated from expensive prep schools — they knew how to study, take exams and write essays. Privileged background tends to produce well-prepared students. The obverse also seems to be true. Thus, the children of wealth tend to go to private institutions, to remain in the same college where they started, and to graduate in four years, while the children of parents of minimal means tend to attend public universities where only a small percentage graduate in four years.

I also served as president of a medium-sized public university where a significant percentage of students were Pell Grant-eligible, i.e., came from families with modest means. Nevertheless, after investing in one new administrative position — dean of retention — my university was able to dramatically improve both retention and persistence to graduation rates. I added that position because of a fundamental belief, namely, that it is not enough to give students an opportunity to attend university, only to helplessly witness a high percentage of them dropping out or stopping out or transferring to another school after a year or two. If you admit a student, you are honor-bound to make certain they graduate. A dean dedicated to retaining and graduating students can make a difference, especially if you also focus on adding both short-term and long-term (endowed) scholarship monies that nullify a student’s decision to drop out because of affordability issues. A dean dedicated to retention also counsels intellectually insecure students who have difficulty making the transition from high school to college. In six years, my university improved retention from first to second year from 77% to 84%, improved SAT scores of new students from 1060 to 1130, and boasted improved graduation rates far exceeding any in the UMS universities (50% in four years, 73% in six years, and a 13% transfer out rate).

My best student in a UMaine graduate-level course was as smart and capable as any student I taught at Colby. My worst graduate students at UMaine would not do well in an undergraduate Colby course. But my worst UMaine students were down-to-earth, hard-working, not at all elitist and thoroughly decent human beings. They also were a joy to teach. I cannot make the same claim about all Colby students. Most public universities cannot boast high retention and graduation rates, but they can boast that they are comparatively affordable, accessible and open to young people from all backgrounds. The challenge they face is clear: invest resources in retention to improve graduation rates; or, if you are UMaine, be honest and tell new students at opening convocation that you have only a 36% chance of graduating in four years; if you are USM, tell new students the likelihood of graduating in four years is 10%; and so on, ad nauseum.

Roger Bowen lives in Prospect Harbor and is director of the Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellows.


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