It's only a slight increase -- up about 4 percent this year compared to the year before. But it's cause for optimism at the U of M, which has had graduation rates languishing near the bottom compared to its peers in the Big Ten.
University of Minnesota Vice Provost Craig Swan says despite the positive trend, it's no time for the school to rest on its laurels.
"This is not a case where we can relax. This is a case where we need to sustain and reinforce our committment to students' success," says Swan.
Four-year graduation rates on the Twin Cities campus have risen for more than the last 10 years, but will have to sustain a steep increase to reach the university's goal set last year of 60 percent.
While the fact that 55 percent of entering freshmen don't receive a degree may be troubling, that number is a welcome change from 2000, when almost three-quarters of students failed to graduate.
Swan attributes a smorgasbord of programs and policy changes for the improvement. One big change came in 2004, when the university decided not to charge additional tuition when students take more than 13 credits per semester. It's a financial savings for the student, and an incentive to get courses out of the way earlier.
Swan also credits the university's added support programs, including better academic advising, identifying students who are faltering, and finding ways to welcome a variety of students.
"It isn't sink or swim. But it's to understand the rigors of the university that helps them to succeed and gives them the tools to succeed," says Swan.
Another key idea is to get the message out that the university expects students to keep their academic career moving, which wasn't always the case.
"I tell students the university should be a part of their life, but it should be a *part* of their life," says Swan.
Swan also believes a new technological tool for students can only improve graduation rates in the future. The Graduation Planner allows students an easy way to map out course requirements for each year of school, cutting down on the possibility of missing a class needed for graduation.
Sophmore Doug Ahlgren demonstrated the planner for a Regents panel.
"It gives me a list of the courses I need. I can click on an individual course, I get a description, I know when it's offered, I know what the pre-requisites are," says Ahlgren. "So I can very quickly decide where or when I can plan to take that course."
A relatively small number of students have used the planner so far, but Vice Provost Swan expects nearly full participation in the future as students become aware of it.
While Twin Cities graduation rates continue to climb, the rates at the U's other three campuses are falling. Swan says officials hope to find ways to turn those trends around.
"I would say progress toward our goals are going to have ups and downs. When they're downs, we need to make sure they're followed by ups afterwards," says Swan.
Coinciding with the increase in four-year graduation rates in recent years is a sharp hike in tuition, providing an added incentive for students to finish sooner to avoid another year's worth of college costs.