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Editorial: Rising UNM grad rate took leadership, teamwork

Excuses are a popular currency in the world of public education, especially when it comes to explaining why things can’t be done and why students can’t … fill in the blank.

And by that standard, the University of New Mexico had plenty of excuse currency in the bank to justify the school’s wretched four-year graduation rate of 12.6 percent in 2010 – meaning only a relative handful of students who enrolled completed their degree in four years. That number had improved to a still dismal 16.7 percent in 2014.

The explanations were many. Leading the pack: too many students who enrolled simply were not prepared by New Mexico’s public schools to do college work. (Excuses are often based in fact. More than half of incoming freshmen needed remedial work. In some cases, high school honors students couldn’t do freshman math or read at that level.)

There were more, of course, including that UNM is a non-traditional campus with many part-time students and commuters, and the ever-popular lack of funding.

Then, instead of continued hand wringing, a new leadership team in 2012 set out to change the equation and the outcomes.

Then-incoming President Bob Frank made improving the graduation rate a priority, and with his support and encouragement Provost Chaouki Abdallah pushed a host of reforms – some of which were being proposed by the state Department of Higher Education – to make it happen.

And happen it did.

According to a presentation to regents last week, UNM’s four-year rate has hit 32.5 percent this year and UNM officials say there is a possibility that will climb to 34 percent when students now wrapping up their degrees this summer are counted. The five- and six-year graduation rates also have seen significant increases, hitting 47.1 percent and 49.5 percent, respectively, this spring.

It wasn’t easy. Abdallah said the efforts involved hundreds of people as UNM instituted important reforms that included better counseling for students, revamping the way remedial learning was handled by incorporating it into regular courses. More responsibility was put on deans of the various colleges to engage with students at an earlier point. And the number of hours required for most majors was trimmed to match what students actually needed – saving them both time and money.

Abdallah, who also served as interim president after regents ousted Frank in a dark chapter of regent governance, said there is more to do, including redesigning how to handle “killer” courses that often derail promising students.

It’s worth noting that the key to UNM’s improvement is that the focus has been on student success – even if it pushed some faculty and administrators out of their comfort zone. Now, students are spending and borrowing less money to get their degree, and are able to enter the workplace or go on to graduate school sooner. In Economics 101 terms, for these students time is money.

These numbers show what is possible with outstanding leadership that focuses on the right objective, insists on a plan to get there and isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers. While Abdallah graciously and rightly shares the credit with many, this would not have happened without him and Bob Frank.

Abdallah also is correct in noting there is more to do. Despite the dramatic improvement, UNM still lags the nation in these key graduation categories.

The baton has now been passed to UNM’s new president, Garnett Stokes, who has stressed the importance of the task, but will also need the toughness to take this success to the next level. She will need regent support to do that, but without question, she takes the handoff in a much stronger position.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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