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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Graduation Rates Drop as Tuition Climbs

The projected graduation rates to be reported for this year will show a decline, according to an analysis by UMass Boston’s Office of Institutional Research and Policy.

Graduation rate data is collected on a yearly basis and is factored at four, five, and six-year intervals, allowing for up to 150 percent of the standard time of degree completion. This spring will mark the sixth year of schooling for those first time freshmen that entered UMass Boston in 1998.

An analysis of student retention statistics by the Office of Institutional Research and Policy (OIRP) yielded the expectation that “the six year graduation rate that we report to IPEDS [National Center for Educational Statistics’ Integrated Post-secondary Education Data System] this year will be 29-31 percent.” The report cites this as a decrease from the reported rates of 35% for the graduation cycle that began in 1996, and 34% for those beginning at UMB in 1997, showing a decrease between six and three percent over the past three measured classes of incoming first-time fall semester freshmen upon graduation.

Annual information is assembled based on whether or not these recent high school grads stay at the university and how long it takes them to fulfill the requirements for their undergraduate degree. These retention and graduation rates are then reported to the IPEDS in compliance with both state and federal requirements. These rates, coupled with other characteristics like financial aid opportunities and student life, also form a university profile that is used in comparisons with other institutions and determine the college’s stature in publications like US News and World Report or The Princeton Review.

“[Graduation rates] are not something most students consider, I think, in deciding the quality of an institution,” Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management Kathleen Teehan says. “But, it’s important because it can be part of the reputation, it can be what people perceive the institution to be.”

“Naturally we want to try to have the best that we can. But, we also understand this institution serves students who work, who have other responsibilities and obligations and they need to sometimes be part-time or they need to take time off and come back later. All of those things play out differently in a measure like this,” she says. This sort of evaluation does not fair well on a campus like UMB and is targeted for a more traditional college atmosphere, Teehan says. As the progress of transfer students is not mapped on a state or national level, the small portion of UMB students who do fit that mold are helping to shape the university’s face. “It’s always a concern because it’s something that we have to report and it’s something that’s measured,” she says. Teehan maintains that although this first-time full-time freshman population is so crucial in these ratings, they only comprise around six hundred of the close to three thousand new students each year, but that it should not be difficult to make it a priority of impacting the group. According to Teehan, UMB has already begun to take steps for providing a better atmosphere for these more traditional students. First-year seminars and Freshman English courses are being linked so that “the same group of 25 or 30 students is in at least two classes together, which creates some opportunity for students to meet other students, develop some friendships, networks, and communities for themselves,” says Teehan. This, in conjunction with the Campus Center’s projected new role as a central gathering place and a renewed focus on advising support within liberal arts majors, has been instituted to help entering full-time freshmen. Due to the demonstrative numbers of transfer-based population presence on campus, internally the university does track transfer student graduation rates. But since other colleges do not produce similar numbers, it is difficult for UMB to compare its progress, according to Kevin Murphy, OIRP research analyst. Other less quantitative measures are being sought to supplement the information and produce a more accurate picture of the student body. UMB has participated in the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) in which first-year and senior students are surveyed in regard to their contact with faculty and the amount of time they are able to devote to school in the context of other obligations, among other institutions similar in academic and general missions. Of the predicted slide in graduation rate, Murphy contends that at least part of the dip may be related to international students, whose graduation rate dropped 15 percent for those who enrolled in 1998 compared with the prior two years. “When you’re dealing with numbers, you may have a difference but you don’t know if it’s statistically significant,” says Murphy. “Sometimes it’s just sort of a normal variation so it’s hard to figure out,” he says. Dr. Steven Schwartz, head of the Psychology Department and faculty representative to the UMass Board of Trustees, sees the factors that effect these rates as varied in the degree to which the university can control them.

Financial issues register high in Schwartz’s assessment. “One possibility is that a certain number of students are not graduating or are taking a longer time because of financial constraints and consideration,” he says. “They may not want to go that much in debt…that we have little control over.” Schwartz points to the static nature of scholarship rather than loan-based financial aid in an atmosphere of increasing tuition rates as a key factor. He adds that of the $48 million of financial aid granted annually, only $2 million is grant-based, and consequently upon undergraduate graduation, seniors average $21,000 in debt. Efforts at lobbying the state and Congress, and attempts to raise internal contributions to scholarship money sometimes aids outside contributions, says Schwartz.

He asserts that certain students, after having spent a couple of years at UMB, prefer to transfer for the benefit of a traditional dorm experience.”There’s evidence that students who participate in activities outside of the classroom tend to remain and the kind of activities that I have in mind are not only clubs and student life activities, but…research, internship, and service learning experiences,” says Schwartz. “Those tend to involve students and are among the kinds of things that really enrich their education and tend to make them want to stay.”

Schwartz has also proposed a voluntary mentorship program to Student Affairs in which student volunteers would be paired with faculty and administrative mentors to help guide them in their first years at UMass.Murphy maintains that as a result of the cyclic nature of the graduation statistics, these and other recent efforts to support growth may not surface for a couple of years.

Faculty and administration agree that it is the unique nature of the UMB student in the context of the larger homogenous picture of academia that distinguishes the college. But it may be that characteristic and the constraints that result that are preventing the university from providing an encompassing look at the work of the UMB community as a whole to the greater academic community and the general public.