The graduation rate at the University of New Mexico this year rose nearly 3 percentage points, an increase officials attribute to specific efforts aimed at moving students more quickly through the undergraduate system.
The 2013 rate for students who started their college careers at UNM and graduated within six years was 48.2 percent. That compares with 45.5 percent for 2012.
Still, university officials are aware that UNM lags far behind the national average for public institutions. Based on 2009 data published by the U.S. Department of Education and reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the national average graduation rate for all colleges, public and private, is about 57 percent.
According to the most recent figures, it costs UNM about $91,000 for each degree issued to full-time students who spend their entire undergraduate careers at the university and graduate within six years. Students who transferred from other schools, including Central New Mexico Community College, are not included. Nor are those students who drop out, suspend their education or transfer to other schools.
The $91,000 UNM spent on each of 3,048 undergraduate degrees in 2010 compares with a national average of $69,000, according to Provost Chaouki Abdallah.
More important, he said, is that the cost of educating a student who graduates after four years is a relatively paltry $50,000.
The main factor for what Abdallah has described as “the higher cost of higher education” at UNM is the fact that more and more students are taking six years to complete what was traditionally a four-year academic program. Another is UNM’s low student retention rate. Efforts are underway to improve both, with the goal of graduating students in four years.
“In order to be able to continue to provide quality higher education for future generations, we need to lower the cost of graduation,” Abdallah wrote in a communique to campus officials last month. “If we could match the cost of average U.S. institutions, we would have an additional $60 million available each year to reinvest in faculty and staff compensation, new buildings and new initiatives. Another (more likely) approach may be to increase our graduation rates while keeping our cost and our students’ costs constant.”
The trend toward taking six years to earn a bachelor’s degree started in the 1980s, the provost said in an interview this week. Around that time, Bill Bradley – the former Rhodes Scholar, NBA and Olympics basketball star, U.S. senator and 2000 Democratic presidential candidate – found that many NCAA schools were taking advantage of athletes, at times letting them stay in school for years longer than was needed for graduation. It was Bradley who got the NCAA to agree to a six-year limit in 1990. Six years soon became a national standard.
Undoubtedly, other factors were also at work. With a college education becoming more of the norm for the average American and less a privilege for the wealthy few, more students found a need for outside employment. This not only cut into study time, it added to the years many students would spend on campus.
To get UNM students to graduate more quickly, more academic and professional advisers are now available to steer them in that direction. And, in some cases, fees are waived to encourage students to take more classes.
Abdallah said that by taking 15 credit units per semester, instead of 12, students can save a “sizeable” amount.
Full-time students who take a course load of 12 to 14 unit hours per semester pay $285 per unit, or about $6,840 per academic year under a new tuition system that took effect this school year. Students who take at least 15 units per semester, however, are charged $215 per unit and would pay about $6,450 for 15 units for the year.