Ask incoming freshmen when they plan to graduate, and they’ll mostly give a date four years ahead. Their parents, who often are footing the bills for college, have similar expectations.
Many students will achieve their goal – about half now graduate in four years – but a significant number take an extra semester or more. To enable more students to complete their degrees in four years, the University is launching an initiative called Finish in Four.
“We want to set the clear expectation that students will graduate in four years,” says Dolan Evanovich, vice provost for enrollment management and chair of the Provost’s Task Force on Retention and Graduation. “Although there may be academic, economic, or personal circumstances that prevent individual students graduating in four years, if a student wants and is able to do so, the University should facilitate that.”
The initiative will be good for students and good for the University, helping to keep the cost of college down for families and improve the University’s standing in relation to other institutions.
Evanovich notes that there is a strong financial incentive for students to finish their degrees in four years, with the cost of attending UConn now approaching $15,000 a year for an in-state student, and $30,000 a year for an out-of-state student.
“Students need to understand the fiscal consequences of taking longer than four years,” he says. “By graduating in four years, not only will they avoid the extra expense of staying in college, but they will also have the opportunity to earn a full-time salary sooner.”
Currently, the University graduates about 50 percent of students at the Storrs campus in four years, and 70 percent in six years. The majority take one extra semester (67 percent graduate in five years).
The six-year rate compares well with other universities: UConn ranks 20th among 58 public research universities nationally. National statistics for four-year graduation rates are not available.
The new metrics established by the Board of Trustees as benchmarks for the University include the six-year graduation rate. Encouraging students to graduate in four years is expected in turn to boost the six-year rate and improve UConn’s ranking in relation to other colleges.
The goal is to increase the four-year rate from 50 percent to 60 percent and the six-year rate from 70 percent to 80 percent.
Having more students finish in four years will also improve access to the University, by allowing for more students to be admitted while keeping the total student population the same.
To achieve the goal will require a change in the culture, says Evanovich.
Students need to know from the outset, he says, that the goal is for each of them to complete a minimum of 30 credits a year. Advisers play a key role in helping them make wise choices about which courses to take, and how many.
“Advisers can help students look to the long term,” says Steven Jarvi, assistant vice provost and director of the Academic Center for Entering Students (ACES), “and help them understand how the decisions they make on a day-to-day basis affect their time frame for graduation.”
Jarvi says that although 15 credits a semester may not be realistic for all students, if they do less, there are opportunities to make up, so that by the end of the year they have at least 30 credits. To get back on track, students can either take more than 15 credits in a semester; take UConn intersession or summer courses; or, when they’re at home for the summer, take courses at a regional campus or a community college.
Advisers also help students settle on a major. About 50 percent of students change their minds about their major – and about 35 percent do so more than once – and that can be an obstacle to graduating in four years. Working with a professional adviser, says Jarvi, enables students to keep as many options open as possible and meet broad general requirements, so that when they do decide, they are still on track.
Another strategy of the Finish in Four initiative is to promote class identity, reinforcing the expectation of graduating in four years. From orientation on, students will be encouraged to think of themselves as belonging to a particular class. Students who are freshmen in 2004 will be identified throughout their college career as the Class of 2008, and will no longer be referred to by their semester standing.
The language is important, Evanovich says: “Too often we hear students refer to themselves as ‘a third-semester biology major’ or a ‘sixth-semester business major’. Instead, when a student says ‘I’m a sophomore’ or ‘I’m a junior,’ it should be clear when they entered the University and when they will graduate.”
A proposal to revise the course numbering system, currently under consideration by the University Senate, would also contribute to the sense of a cohort progressing through a recognized sequence culminating in graduation. The proposal would change the current two-tier system to a four-tier system: freshman courses would be numbered in the 1000’s, sophomore courses in the 2000’s, and so on, with the courses becoming correspondingly more advanced.
“We want students to see their education as a progression, that builds from the beginning and leads to graduation,” says Veronica Makowsky, interim vice provost for academic affairs.
Makowsky also chairs a committee to ensure the availability of courses, another important factor in timely graduation. Before registration, the group reviews the capacity of each course and compares that with previous registration figures so that, where necessary, resources can be reallocated, sections added, or additional instructors hired to accommodate the anticipated demand.
The Registrar’s Office also is proactive in supporting students to graduate in four years, reminding students who are close to graduation to apply to graduate, for example, and reviewing registration for those who have already applied to graduate, to give them the opportunity – if they are missing credits or courses – to resolve the situation.
“We are making a lot more contact with students than in the past, now that we have better tools, such as PeopleSoft and e-mail,” says Jeff von Munkwitz-Smith, registrar.
The registration period has also been restructured so that all students have the opportunity to register for spring classes before Thanksgiving. During orientation, and through a newsletter and the University’s parent website, parents are encouraged to ask their sons and daughters about their classes and courseload during the Thanksgiving break.
Says von Munkwitz-Smith, “We want parents to be partners in motivating their sons and daughters to graduate on time.”