Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
CORRECTION: The spelling of Pomona College has been corrected in this story.
Four years ago, only one, maybe two, of 10 students enrolling at the University of New Mexico would graduate in four years, three more would take up to six years and the others would take longer or drop out.
Nearly half of the students who enrolled would have to take at least one remedial class before moving on to prerequisites for whatever degree program they chose. Some might switch from that program to another. Nearly all were collecting “substantially” more credit hours than necessary. And that led to more cost and lost income potential.
UNM students under that scenario were spending about $95,000 on a degree in six years, including lost pay, that could otherwise have cost about $27,000 for tuition and fees, not including living expenses, in four years.
And it was costing a cash-strapped university nearly $90,000 for each student who earned a degree, even though a four-year degree costs the university, and the taxpayers who subsidize it, about $50,000.
Now, after three years of UNM’s efforts to increase graduation rates and streamline the start-to-finish path of students, including a total overhaul of remedial courses, more students than ever before are graduating and doing it faster with fewer wasted credits.
That means the cost of a degree – to students and the university – has come down.
“We’ve had the highest four-, five- and six-year graduation rates we’ve had in the history of the university,” UNM President Bob Frank said in a recent interview. “And this is the front end of our success wave.”
And the school’s cost for a bachelor’s degree has dropped from about $90,000 to $70,000.
UNM isn’t alone. The state Higher Education Department has been pushing these types of reforms among all of the state’s colleges.
Despite the progress, UNM’s start-to-finish rates lag behind the national averages.
But school officials say those national benchmarks, the four-year and six-year graduation rates, aren’t the best way to judge a school – especially a school like UNM.
UNM has a high number of nontraditional students, 37 percent, and an even higher number of ethnically underrepresented students from poor families in which they are the first to attend college.
About 40 percent of students nationally graduate in four years, but the rate varies by school admission standards, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Schools that admit only high GPA and test-score students have higher graduation rates.
Private – and expensive – Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., admits 12 percent of its applicants, which is one of the most selective in the nation. UNM admits about 46 percent.
UNM accepts students with ACT scores as low as 18 of the maximum 36; Pomona a minimum of 30.
Pomona had a four-year graduation rate at 92 percent in 2013; UNM had a rate of 16 percent, which is now up to 19 percent.
“When we talk about everyone graduating in four years, we’re missing, really, the big picture,” said UNM Provost Chaouki Abdallah. “If we just accepted the top students, we’d have that high of a graduation rate, too.”
Indeed, 100 percent of the top incoming freshmen, those with a 3.4 GPA and at least a 1500 SAT (the national average score) and 21 ACT in 2008, graduated in four years. Two students fit that criteria.
But one of the school’s main missions is to be accessible to the people of New Mexico, not just the top, Abdallah and Frank said.
“We have to balance that,” Abdallah said.
And access includes students who might not be entirely ready.
About 40 percent of students entering UNM’s main campus and about 50 percent of students entering branch campuses are in need of some remedial help, based on incoming test scores.
For years, those students had to take semester-long remedial classes and pass them before they could start the classes for their degree, often prolonging their time in school by a year and a half, according to Sonia Gipson-Rankin, the associate dean of University College.
“We were teaching them again, and they were failing again,” Frank said. “So we got rid of remedial classes.”
This semester, UNM instead put these students in self-paced and segmented computer courses overseen in group settings by tutors and faculty. The segments, which cost the same as a regular class, mean students can avoid a pass or fail for the whole course and can achieve in increments and into their degree courses.
According to Gipson-Rankin, students are moving through the self-paced courses faster than faculty expected and are entering for-credit classes better prepared than under the previous model.
Once students enter their degree program, UNM found that they were taking a long time to complete it, veering off course and ultimately taking more classes than necessary for their degree, something academics call “credit creep.”
For most degree programs, a student taking five classes a semester and taking summers off could collect 120 credits and graduate with a bachelor’s in four years.
But a 2013 UNM report on credit creep showed that students who graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the College of Arts and Sciences were often taking 14 extra classes that were not required to receive their degree, either because they came in with credits that didn’t apply to their degree, they switched degree tracks or they needed remedial courses.
With UNM’s in-state tuition, excluding room and board and books, those 14 extra classes could cost about $10,000 and take about an additional year and a half.
The delay adds to the cost if one includes the lost wages a graduate would have earned in their first year had they graduated sooner. The first-year average salary for a UNM graduate with a bachelor’s degree is about $34,000.
Based on this math, a 120-credit degree for a graduate who takes six years costs about $95,000 in tuition and lost wages. A 120-credit degree in four years, at 2015 tuition, costs about $27,000 in tuition and fees.
To get students to stay on track and to rein in credit creep, UNM offered a discount on tuition for students who take enough classes, usually five a semester, to stay on track for four-year graduation.
That program increased the number of undergraduates taking more than four classes by 17 percent, said Terry Babbitt, associate vice president for enrollment management.
“A bunch of our kids got smart and switched, which is what we wanted,” Frank said of the incentive to take more classes at one time.
UNM now also offers to make the final semester of classes free for students who stay on track to graduate in four years.
And the school reduced the required credit hours for most of its bachelor’s degrees from 128 to 120 – in line with universities across the region and nation. The extra eight hours of credit often meant another semester and a five-year graduation instead of four.
“It’s not about cheapening the degree,” Abdallah said. “It’s about are we doing the right thing?”
Five isn’t so bad
And the right thing for many UNM students isn’t always a four-year degree, especially those managing work, a family and the unfamiliar expectations of college culture, Abdallah said.
UNM has a higher percentage of these students than most flagship colleges in the nation, Babbitt said. Consider:
• 39 percent of UNM students are poor enough to receive Pell Grants from the federal government.
• 40 percent of students are the first in their family to attend college
• More than 50 percent of juniors and seniors work more than 25 hours a week.
• At least 7 percent of full-time students have children.
• And 25 percent of UNM’s 21,500 undergraduates are nontraditional students, those who are still undergraduates at age 25.
The emphasis, Abdallah said, shouldn’t be on the number of students getting a degree in four years.
“What’s important to us is to get them the skills and tools they need to adapt,” Abdallah said. “And getting them a degree, in four, five or six years” or more.
In fact, more UNM students graduate in five years than in four or in six, according to school data. And in 2013, about 13 percent of the year’s graduates took between seven and 10 years.
That 13 percent, or 250 students, who got their diplomas after the six-year benchmark and aren’t counted in the school’s graduation rate.
And neither are students who transfer into the school or who attend part time.
Babbitt said there is a national shift to start tracking the graduation rates of these students, which account for about half of the students at UNM.
Abdallah said a more important measure is the school’s retention rate, which exceeds the national average.
The retention rate, beginning freshmen returning for their second year, is up at UNM and is the highest it has ever been.
It’s also improving faster than all of UNM’s peer institutions in the region, Babbitt said.
In 2011, the retention rate was 74 percent. In 2015, it was 79.5 percent, 80 percent for Hispanic students.
“It’s hard to improve any, but we improved twice of what our 22 peers did,” Babbitt said. “We are still below them, but we are improving faster.”