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NM is near the bottom, again

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

A new state-by-state comparison of graduation rates at four-year public colleges places New Mexico near the bottom of the list, with just three states – all from the West – posting lower percentages of students who earned their bachelor degrees within six years.

The graduation rate for first-time students who enrolled in 2007 in New Mexico was a fraction above 45 percent. Nationwide, it was 63 percent.

Both rates were higher than last year, when New Mexico scored under 42 percent and the national average was above 61 percent.

University of New Mexico Provost Chaouki Abdallah said he could only speculate on why the state’s composite rate is low, but he was willing to talk about UNM. One reason for the low rate, he said, is that students at UNM tend to be older than those at peer institutions, and older students, for various reasons, take longer to graduate.

He also noted that New Mexico’s public universities, including UNM, have relatively more relaxed acceptance policies than institutions in many other states. He referred to studies that track student progress, anticipating graduation rates, that over the years have consistently identified a strong correlation between higher GPAs in high school – and ACT and SAT scores – with higher graduation rates from college.

“The better prepared the student, the higher the graduation rate,” Abdallah said.

Earlier this year, UNM lowered the number of required credit hours for a bachelor’s degree from 128 to 120, following a national trend. That, too, is expected to help improve its graduation rate. The increase in UNM’s graduation rate over the past few years is an indication that the focus on freshman preparedness is working, Abdallah said.

Another point that might help explain some differences is financial, he said. States such as Virginia and New Hampshire that scored high often invest more per capita on students than those states near the bottom of the list. The national average, he said, is about $11,000, while New Mexico spends some $9,500 per student.

The annual data, compiled by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, were published last Friday in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The only states to score lower than New Mexico were Idaho, Utah and Nevada. Alaska, which last year was the bottom-ranked state with a 23 percent score, was not included in the most recent listing because of a technicality.

The states with the highest rankings were Iowa, New Hampshire and Virginia. Iowa was also at the top of the list last year.

New Mexico’s neighbors generally run in the middle of the pack. Oklahoma scored slightly above New Mexico with 46 percent; Texas recorded a 59 percent score; Colorado came in a little higher at 61 percent; while Arizona led the pack in the Southwest with a 70 percent score.

Among students who entered New Mexico’s public universities in 2007, nearly 50 percent of women graduated by 2013. For males, the rate was considerably lower, 41 percent. Nationally, the gender divide was just as evident, with 67 percent of women graduating vs. 60 percent of men.

The state-by-state comparison is an aggregate listing and does not include individual universities.

In a performance report released last November, the New Mexico Council of University Presidents included numbers for “Percent of first-time, full-time freshmen completing an academic program within six years” at six of the state’s seven publicly funded four-year institutions. They included:

  • UNM, 49 percent
  • New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, 44 percent
  • New Mexico State University, 43 percent
  • Eastern New Mexico University, 29 percent
  • Western New Mexico University, 23 percent
  • New Mexico Highlands University, 18 percent

Greg Heileman, UNM’s associate provost for curriculum, credited the recent uptick in the graduation rate on a series of initiatives pushed by Abdallah that received the support of the Board of Regents.

Called the Student Success Initiatives, they focus on enhanced academic coaching, early warning and graduation express programs that may include fee waivers and course overrides, help with planning for graduation, the establishment of an Honors College, and redesigning first-year and freshman-orientation programs. All provide targeted outreach and services to match students with resources to bolster their UNM experience.

Abdallah said he is pleased with UNM’s recent progress in raising the six-year rate, but conceded that the university has a long way to go in improving its four-year completion rate.