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UNM turns out grads at record pace

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

In 2010, only 12.6 percent of University of New Mexico students earned a degree within four years.

Today, about a third of them do it.

New preliminary numbers show that UNM’s four-year graduation rate continued to climb in 2018, reaching 32.5 percent. But that does not count all of the students who wrapped their degrees during the summer session, and officials estimate the number should top 34 percent once those graduates are included.

The 2018 number will surpass last year’s record of 29.4 percent and continues an upward trend. Only 12.6 percent of UNM students finished in four years in 2010, while 16.7 percent did it in 2014.

Heather Mechler, director of UNM’s Office of Institutional Analytics, described it as a “stunning amount of growth over what we saw just a few years ago.” She presented the preliminary numbers Thursday to the regents’ academic/student affairs and research committee.

Her presentation showed UNM also has made progress in its five- and six-year graduation rates.

The five-year rate hit 47.1 percent by the end of spring semester, up from 43.2 percent last year. The six-year rate rose to 49.5 percent from 48.7 percent in 2017.

Both should also grow with summer degree additions, and Mechler said the finalized numbers should be available later this month.

Even with the improvement, UNM lags the national average. The four-year graduation rate at all four-year institutions is 40.6 percent, according to the most recent federal data available. It is 35.5 percent at public four-year schools. Nationally, the six-year graduation rate is 59.8 percent at all schools, and 58.9 percent at public institutions.

UNM made significant investments aimed at helping first-year students, including additional advising resources and the computer-centric “Math MaLL” for those working through entry-level math.

Regent Suzanne Quillen called the continued gains a “huge accomplishment” and praised UNM Provost Chaouki Abdallah for maintaining a focus on student success measures even amid recent years’ budgetary challenges.

Abdallah, who will leave later this month for a new administrative position at Georgia Tech, said former UNM president Bob Frank made improving the graduation rate a priority, but he credited a larger culture change at UNM.

“This involved hundreds and thousands of people,” Abdallah said. “We had a lot of difficult conversations and also changing of attitudes and changing of processes. … There is no one person or even a small group (to credit).”

But the provost also sounded warnings about the future, saying the growth is not sustainable unless UNM finds and implements other measures to keep students on track.

While UNM has intervened to remake its entry-level math programming, Abdallah said it should do the same in other subjects with similar “killer courses” that can stop students from advancing.

“We need to redesign those to put more resources into those,” he said. “Our models show if you can improve the success in those courses, there’s a multiplier effect, but we can’t do it today with the resources we have.”

Terry Babbitt, vice provost of enrollment management and analytics, said in an interview that UNM likely needs to continue boosting advising services but budgetary constraints make that difficult.

UNM saw state funding cuts the last two years. While it saw a slight boost this fiscal year, the appropriation remains below 2015 levels. Tuition and state funding are UNM’s primary funding streams.

Babbitt said financial considerations also make it hard to expand certain offerings aimed at first-year students. That includes the Early Start Summer program, which UNM requires for incoming freshmen with lower standardized test scores as a means of easing their transition to college.

UNM fronts the tuition costs for the neediest students, he said. In addition, forcing more students into the program might turn them off UNM, hurting the school’s already declining enrollment.

“(The summer program) costs money and it causes students to make other decisions sometimes than attend UNM,” Babbitt said. “So it’s hard to expand in this enrollment environment.”