Minn. college graduation rates going up

Minnesota State University Mankato
Student cross the Minnesota State University campus in Mankato.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

A new state report shows graduation rates at Minnesota colleges are on the rise. Colleges say that's because they're pushing students harder to finish their degrees in six years or less.

The Minnesota Office of Higher Education says, as of 2008, 61 percent of first-time, fulltime college students got their bachelor's degrees within six years. That number has slowly crept upward over the years.

Less than a decade ago, at the University of Minnesota, less than half of students graduated in six years. Now that number is more than 60 percent.

The U's dean of undergraduate education, Bob McMaster, says that's because the college started requiring students to take more classes every semester.

"Our advisors pretty much insist, and the university insists, on taking 13 credits, and you have to have a waiver not to take 13 credits here," said McMaster.

Anything over 13 credits is free, something the college hopes encourages students to take a heavier course load and graduate sooner.

Six-year graduation rates are highest at the state's private colleges. In 2008, 72 percent of students graduated in six years or less.

"In this global economy, we can't have any of our students not completing what they started."

John Manning with the Minnesota Private Colleges Council says they credit that to a lower staff-to-student ratio at private schools.

"That carries over into more counseling, more attention to individual students," said Manning. "So there's more likelihood that individual students' needs will be met on an ongoing basis, to help keep them on track for a timely graduation." Another reason behind the improvement in graduation rates is more stringent entrance requirements. Schools that have raised the admissions bar in recent years see a higher caliber class of incoming freshmen more likely to finish their degrees.

State-run universities, under the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System, admit students with lower test scores. Those students often take longer to get a degree.

At MnSCU schools, 48 percent of students get their degree in six years or less. That number has gone up in recent years, but still lags behind the U of M and the state's private schools.

Linda Baer, MnSCU's senior vice chancellor for academic and student affairs, says there's another reason students at state-run universities take longer to finish their degrees -- many of them are going to school full time while working full time.

"In fact, going to school and living your life is far more what more people are doing, and are going to be doing in the future," said Baer, "because updating their education and their competencies and skills will be the name of the game in this next decade."

Colleges are happy to see steady increases in the six-year graduation rate. But Dave Metzen, who heads up the state's Office of Higher Education, wants to see even more effort behind improving the graduation rate at Minnesota's colleges.

"In this global economy, we can't have any of our students not completing what they started," said Metzen. "This has to be a high priority for all of us in education."

While the six-year graduation rate is often used as a measurement of success, the number of students who graduate with a bachelor's degree in four years is still relatively low.

In 2008, 36 percent of U of M students and less than 20 percent of MnSCU state university students graduated in four years. The number is higher at the state's private colleges, at 59 percent.

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