Minn. colleges push students to graduate in four years

Provost Tom Sullivan
University of Minnesota Provost Tom Sullivan holds a photo of the school's class of 2014. Sullivan says freshmen are constantly reminded that they should work to graduate in four years.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Minnesota's colleges are trying new strategies to convince students to earn their bachelor's degrees in four years -- a schedule that could save them, and their parents, thousands of dollars in tuition and expenses.

Fewer than half of Minnesota's college students earn their degrees in that time and many take five of six years -- if they don't drop out.

The University of Minnesota is considering a plan that could mean higher tuition for students who have the credits to graduate, but don't seem ready leave campus.

For freshmen at the university's Twin Cities campus, the expectation to graduate in four years is less than subtle.

University president Robert Bruininks drove the point home recently when he welcomed more than 5,000 freshmen to campus with a speech and a small gift.

"Somebody must have handed you a white envelope, with instructions not to open it until you were given the word," Bruininks said at Mariucci Arena. "So now I'm giving you the word, open these envelopes now."

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Inside those envelopes was a graduation tassel labeled "2014". Bruininks told freshmen he expects them to be ready to wear that tassel at graduation in four years.

University officials are considering a move that would give students another incentive to graduate on time.

Students who have enough credits for a diploma, but who still hang around taking classes, could see their tuition bill increase, said Tom Sullivan, the university's senior vice president for academic affairs.

Kelly Walton
Kelly Walton, 19, is a sophomore at the University of Minnesota majoring in genetics and cell biology. Walton hopes to avoid excessive loan debt by graduating in four years.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

"If we were to create that extra tuition rule, it would only be in the case of the student who is through the fourth year and has accumulated 125, 130 hours which is well beyond our average graduation number," Sullivan said.

University officials have not yet discussed how much that tuition increase could be, and Sullivan said the idea is only in the early stages of discussion.

Even if it's put in place, it wouldn't affect many students. But officials say it could help change the culture on a campus, where what is meant to be a four-year degree is too often a five- or six-year effort.

To increase the number of student graduating in four years, the university ultimately will have to help students who get off track academically and financially, problems that can delay graduation or force a student to drop out.

Sullivan said officials are working harder to keep those students on target with better counseling and advising.

"There are very strong academic reasons for having the expectation of graduating in four years, there are significant financial implications to graduating in four years," he said. "The institution's own reputation can be affected by students not graduating in a timely way."

About 47 percent of University of Minnesota students on the Twin Cities campus graduate in four years. That puts the university in the middle among Big 10 schools. The university has set a goal of having 60 percent of students graduate in four years by 2012.

At the university's Crookston and Duluth campuses, four-year graduation rates were at around 30 percent, according to data from 2005, the most recent available. But In 2005 the Morris campus posted a four-year rate of 50 percent.

University of Minnesota students
Students walk between classes on the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus. The university is considering a plan that would increase tuition for students who have enough credits to graduate but don't seem interested in leaving campus.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Four-year graduation rates are becoming an increasingly important indicator of a school's performance to students, parents and policy makers, especially as tuition prices continue to increase.

The message that earning a degree in four years makes financial sense has gotten through to university sophomore Kelly Walton, of Maplewood.

Walton, 19, wants to get her degree in genetics and cell biology in only four years.

"I want to get out of here with as few loans as possible," she said.

University officials say they're confident their message is already getting across to students, and they expect a higher four-year graduation rate in the years to come.

One indicator they say is that more than 90 percent of last year's freshman returned as sophomores, increasing the chance that more students will make it through to graduation in four years.

The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system also is concerned with increasing graduation rates.

The average four year graduation rate at Minnesota's seven state universities, as of 2007, was just above 20 percent.

MnSCU officials say that's because the state's universities accept students with lower ACT scores, meaning they're less prepared academically for college. They also said MnSCU students are older and work more, so students are less likely to get their degrees in four years.

Many state university students now take a semester-long orientation course to help them decide on a major and start them on the four-year track for a diploma.

The state's private non-profit schools lead the state in four-year graduation rates, with 64 percent of private school students earning a degree in that time.

Some think the higher cost of private college tuition is incentive enough to finish on time.

But private college officials say they've put a priority on finishing in four years longer than public universities.