Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
Chaouki Abdallah stood before the University of New Mexico Board of Regents earlier this month and offered some welcome good news.
Counting the just-completed summer session, the four-year graduation rate at the state’s largest university had topped 29 percent – that’s about double where it stood just five years ago, said Abdallah, the school’s interim president.
Regent Suzanne Quillen congratulated Abdallah and the administration, sparking a round of applause from meeting attendees.
“These outcomes are great and shows whatever we’re doing – let’s keep doing it,” Quillen said.
In 2012, UNM reported a four-year graduation rate of 14.8 percent. The 2017 figure – which represents 2013’s freshman class – is not quite final, but it will be at least 29.4 percent.
That is “by far” a record, based on tracking that goes back to the early 1980s, according to Terry Babbitt, UNM’s vice provost of enrollment and analytics.
Abdallah has said in recent public addresses that UNM doubled its graduation rate faster than any other school in the country. That’s difficult, if not impossible, to prove. But if anybody has advanced quicker, Abdallah said he has not heard about it.
He noted that UNM even compares favorably to what he calls “the poster child” for improved student outcomes, Georgia State University. Nationally heralded for its progress, Georgia State’s online data shows its four-year graduation rate rose to 26.7 percent in 2016 from 16.9 percent 10 years prior.
Abdallah told the regents that the school’s investments and initiatives in recent years paved the way.
The question now, he says, is if UNM has the resources to keep making gains.
“I think we are seeing some warning signs at this stage,” he said at the meeting.
On the third floor of Zimmerman Library one recent Monday morning, students sit huddled at tables marked with signs that say “Statistics,” “Chemistry/Biology” and “Algebra.” They pore over open textbooks and consult with peer tutors.
UNM’s Center for Academic Program Support employs about 160 student tutors to help at this and other spots around campus. That includes the nearby Writing & Language Center where students can get assistance drafting essays or even practicing their German and Chinese.
“Lots of colleges have learning centers, but I would say ours is unique in terms of the scope and the breadth of services,” CAPS associate director Anne Compton said.
When UNM started its concerted “student success” focus about six years ago, CAPS was among the beneficiaries. The program received a $110,000 budget boost as part of $2.3 million in new, recurring funding directed into areas like advising, libraries and support staff.
While CAPS has existed nearly 40 years, it has in recent years grown and evolved. It offers “learning strategies” workshops on note-taking, college reading and time management. And students need not even leave their dorms to get help; CAPS tutors now hold regular online hours and provide guidance and resources via blog posts.
CAPS recorded 53,904 tutoring hours last academic year. More than 40 percent of UNM’s freshmen and sophomores use its services.
Abdallah said he began concentrating on student success measures upon assuming the role of UNM provost in the summer of 2011. The school was in the midst of a major freshman falloff, with only 73 percent of the 2010 class returning in 2011.
Abdallah and former UNM President Bob Frank, who served from 2012 to 2016, implemented new programs and funneled more money into existing programs aimed primarily at keeping freshmen on track.
“We had a lot of efforts (before then), but they were uncoordinated. What we did is we focused on the first year,” he said.
Return on investment
Many factors contributed to UNM’s surging graduation rates. Abdallah calls reducing graduation credit-hour requirements among the most critical.
UNM has streamlined curriculum so that most programs require 120 hours, down from 128 or more. But he said other pivotal moves include bolstering and reallocating advising resources and creating the “Math MaLL,” a computer-centric learning center for students working through entry-level math courses on special software.
Everything comes with a cost: UNM spent $1.3 million to create the Math MaLL, and has reallocated some resources to pay for its annual operations. Advising enhancements run an extra $550,000 a year.
But current budget constraints wrought by reduced state funding and shrinking enrollment provide little opportunity for new initiatives and have even meant cuts in many areas.
Manpower is another problem: UNM is funding 13.5 percent fewer staff positions this fiscal year than in 2016 and filling only some vacancies when they occur. CAPS, for example, has two of its 12 staff positions open.
“The investments that we made were … costly but I think the return is huge. And when we cut, we don’t see it right away; we have momentum. Then certain things start not to get done,” he said.
Abdallah said he’s concerned about staff and faculty “burnout” limiting UNM’s ability to continue charting progress, and said he is starting to see what might be troubling signs. That includes a dip in freshman retention, which slipped this fall to 78.2 percent after five straight years of growth.
Fewer sophomores mean fewer future graduates.
“I want people to know that these things will have an effect or are having an effect. You don’t see it immediately. You’re not going to see it this year. … Today we don’t see it in two years, we don’t see it. In three or four, that’s it,” he said.