URIís Graduation Rate
Linda A. Acciardo, 401-874-2116
KINGSTON, R.I. Ė March 31, 2005 Ė The recent articles on graduation rates at Rhode Islandís colleges and universities raise some important questions. As the study by the Education Trust points out, the goal for students is not only admission but, more importantly, graduation. Commissioner Jack Warner is right when he says that the prize goes only to those who graduate.
That being said, however, the study by the Education Trust has its limitations. What it measures is how many of the specific individuals who enroll as true freshmen graduate from the same college or university within six years. As the Journal story points out, the study does not include transfer students. For example, if a student transfers to URI or RIC from CCRIóa pathway we all supportóthat student is not counted in the study. A student who begins at URIís Alan Shawn Feinstein College of Continuing Education in Providence is not likely to be counted either, since most are older and have been out of school for some time. Students in URIís College of Pharmacy are also not counted because they enroll as freshmen in a six-year professional degree program (a particularly troublesome issue for URI, since students in this highly competitive program boast our best admissions profile and graduate at a very high rate). These are matters of real significance, because students today are much more mobile, continually looking for what they want and need at the best price available. At the Connecticut state universities, for example, they report that 42 percent of their graduates started college somewhere else.
In the particular group that the Trust studiedóthose who entered college in 1997 and graduated by 2003óURIís record is illustrative. In the fall of 1997, we enrolled 2,088 new freshmen, which at that time included pharmacy students. At the spring commencement of 2003, a total of 2,026 undergraduates (including pharmacy students) walked across the Quad. If we think about the issue in that way, we would have a 97 percent graduation rate, although many of them were not the same individuals who entered in 1997.
Nonetheless, URI does have a higher attrition rate of these traditional freshmen than other peer institutions in New England. In many ways, for example, URI and the University of New Hampshire are remarkably similar in size, price, and academic profiles of entering freshmen. Yet there are several important differences.
First, on average, URI students have a lower family income than UNH students. Mirroring its stateís demographics, for example, UNH enrolls about 4 percent minority students, many from out of state. Mirroring the Rhode Island demographics, URI enrolls about 13 percent minority students, most of whom are low-income students from Rhode Islandís core urban cities. UNH may do a better job of graduating minority students on a percentage basis, but URI graduates far more minority students.
Second, while the tuition and fees and the availability of federal financial aid at URI and UNH are about equal, there is a much larger gap at URI between what it costs to go to college and the capacity of students and their parents to pay. UNH is better able to fill that gap with scholarships and other financial aid because their endowment is approximately twice the size of URIís.
Third, UNH is able to guarantee on-campus housing to both freshmen and sophomores. Because we have fewer dorm rooms at URI, we can only guarantee housing to freshmen. This seems to be particularly worrisome to female students who come to Rhode Island from out of state, the cohort in our student population most likely to leave before graduation.
Finally, UNH students seem to earn a larger number of credits each semester. This may be because the UNH curriculum is organized into four-credit courses, and its students take four courses per semester, or 16 credit hours. URIís curriculum, like most universities, is organized around three-credit courses and we expect our students to carry 15 to 18 credit hours each semester. In fact, our students take four or five courses per term and average just over fourteen credit hours.
What are the strategies, then, that URI needs to employ to raise our graduation rate? In fact, each of them is included in our Strategic Plan for 2003-2006:
1) Reduce unmet family need. Governor Carcieriís proposal to increase funding for the Rhode Island Assistance Authority by some $20 million would be a great help. URI must also help itself through building our endowment, the primary goal of our second major capital campaign. The State can help by adopting a matching gifts program similar to the programs for the University of Connecticut and the University of Massachusetts. At UConn, state matching money has grown from $10 million in 1996 to $20 million today. With the match, UConn generated more than $106 million in eligible private gifts to endowment from 1996 to 2004, earning in excess of $54 million in state match money.
2) Create additional student housing on campus. We will break ground this spring for 800 new beds, and we will continue the rehabilitation of our existing residence halls. We also need to begin now to plan for the next 1,000 beds so that these can become available as soon as possible.
3) Improve our assessment, intervention and options. We will begin using a comprehensive on-line advising system this coming fall, enabling our advisors to have accurate and current information when they meet face to face with students. The new system will include an exit interview mechanism, so that we can better identify why a student is thinking about leaving and do something about it.
A report like the one issued by the Education Trust helps all of us to look hard at ourselves. With an increasingly mobile student population, we need also to understand the dynamics of enrollment that flow from one institution to another and from adults returning to school after time away from their studies. This analysis can only make us better institutions, better able to serve our students, the reason for our existence.
Frank Caprio, Chairman Robert L. Carothers
Board of Governors for Higher Education President