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Commencement at Mayville State University in Mayville, N.D., the event where graduation planning comes to fruition. IMAGE: MAYVILLE STATE UNIVERSITY

Graduation rates: Four years and out

Across the region, colleges are trying to raise graduation rates — and some are having notable success

By Tom Dennis

At their Convocation ceremony this fall, University of Minnesota Twin Cities freshmen will be given graduation tassels with the year 2021 on them. The cost of each tassel? Two or three bucks.

Don’t be fooled.

That little handout is part of a 20-year-long, multi-million dollar effort to solve one of the toughest problems in higher education: low graduation rates.

And here’s the thing: The project has worked. Back in the 1980s, the four-year graduation rate on the U of M’s Twin Cities campus was an abysmal 15 percent. Today, it’s approaching 70 percent, and the six-year rate is likely to pass 80 percent, both numbers ranking the campus among some of the top flagship public universities in America.

How did it happen? What steps did the university take? And can the university systems in North and South Dakota — both of which are embarked on ambitious graduation-rate improvement projects of their own — learn from the U of M’s success?

That’s what this story is about. The bottom-line answer: Yes, the systems can learn — and they’re already doing so. But there are a few key differences between the situations in Minnesota and the Dakotas, which means officials in the Flickertail and Mt. Rushmore states must solve some unique problems of their own. By all accounts, they’re trying to do that, too.


The change at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities stems from a reformed approach to undergraduate education — a rethinking that was “so thorough that the experience is almost unrecognizable to graduates over 40,” Twin Cities Business magazine reported in 2015.

In the 1980s, the university was thought of as a commuter school, the magazine noted. Furthermore, “the U welcomed almost any high school graduate with a pulse. Applications to the College of Liberal Arts were made on a postcard. Weaker students needing remedial education could be admitted to General College, spend their entire time there, and graduate with a degree.”

Today, all of those elements have changed — including the General College, which was eliminated in 2006.

And all of the changes helped boost graduation rates.

The U of M Twin Cities’ experience

Bob McMaster, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education, lists seven factors as being key.

The first is leadership. The process started with then-President Ken Keller, who proposed changing the U’s undergraduate culture in 1985. Since then, all four presidents who’ve followed have signed on.

“Every one of them has had a focus on improving graduation rates and student success,” McMaster said.

Second, tougher admissions standards.

The U used marketing, advertising and other techniques to more than double the number of applications. This let the university become much more selective.

That’s tougher than it sounds, especially when rejected students and their parents start complaining to legislators. But the bottom line is that “as you become more selective — and we did become more selective — you’re bringing in better students, and those students clearly graduate at better rates,” McMaster said.

Next up: Student support. “We really amped up our advising — the tools we use for advising,” McMaster said.

Also improved was “engagement,” a term that includes clubs, wellness facilities, rec sports opportunities and other lifestyle improvements, “because student life is a critical piece of success.”

Financial aid came next, in an effort to ease the debt loads and other fiscal problems that had kept many students from graduating. As a result, “more than 95 percent of our students who are Minnesota residents and have family incomes of less than $50,000 a year have free tuition here,” McMaster said.

Then there’s curriculum. “We found significant bottlenecks there, such as students not being able to get the courses they need to graduate, or excessive degree requirements in certain majors.”

There’s also messaging, of which the above-mentioned tassels are a part. “The second a student steps on campus, we let them know we expect them to graduate in four years,” he said. “Your advisers are constantly telling you how we’re going to get you through in four years’ time” — a point that’ll also be made by the tassels, 2021 being the freshmen’s graduation year.

Last but not least is on-campus living. And that’s where the university still struggles, McMaster said.

If you live in a residence hall, it turns out, you’re far more likely to stay enrolled and graduate on time. Living on campus builds stronger connections with the university — a fact that puts the U at a disadvantage, because the university had neglected dorm construction for years.

“We woke up 20 years ago and said, ‘We under-built our residence halls,’” McMaster said.

“So we got busy, and we built and are building more.”

The Dakotas

Higher-ed leaders in both Dakotas share the sense of urgency that prompted the U of M Twin Cities’ turnaround. So, system leaders in both states have set goals, established committees and spent significant money on the effort.

But residents must remember that the University of Minnesota Twin Cities is unique in the region. The university’s size, status and ability to draw from deep state and national applicant pools let the school rely heavily on one technique — raising admission standards — that’s less available elsewhere.

That’s “less available,” not “unavailable”; other schools still are ratcheting up their freshmen’s test scores and high school GPAs. But in rural states, flagship schools such as the University of North Dakota must take care with the strategy, lest they cut off access to small-town students whose high schools may not offer extensive options, said Hesham El-Rewini, dean of the College of Engineering and Mines and head of the UND-wide effort to increase graduation rates.

“I don’t want to lose good students who could succeed, but did not appear to be a good candidates for admission because their high schools did not give them the opportunities that others had,” El-Rewini said.

So in addition to encouraging on-campus living, paring the curriculum of nonessential requirements, targeting financial aid and the like, the systems are radically reforming student support. Years ago, for example, students who struggled were on their own. Some handled it; some didn’t, and dropped out.

Today, data systems such as Starfish — used in both Dakotas — alert advisers and key faculty when students trend downward on indicators such as exams. “And those data could trigger an action in which we’d intervene to help,” El-Rewini said.

Another ambitious data set is PAR, or Predictive Analytics Reporting. A nonprofit with 351 member institutions, PAR tracks those schools’ anonymized students throughout their studies, offering vast data that can show, for example, exactly which classes seem to be tripping up high numbers of students.

“We might find three-quarters of the students affected,” said Gary Hagen, president of Mayville State University in Mayville, N.D., and the head of the statewide committee to boost graduation rates.

“We might learn we need a prerequisite for that class. We may never have known that without this software, and the power of these numbers is just going to be unbelievable.”

Here’s another change: In South Dakota, “we’ve all but eliminated undecideds,” said Paul Turman, system vice president for academic affairs.

“You as a student can’t come in and say, ‘Oh, I’m not sure what I want to do, so I’m just going to wander the curriculum for awhile.’”

Why? Because too many of those students wound up behind, without the courses they needed once they chose a major.

Today, students commit to exploring within a broad field, such as agriculture.“The exploratory track introduces them to the various career options, but also makes sure they’re getting the right courses for their eventual major,” Turman said.

“That way, nothing is wasted.”

The Bluto factor

In 1978, when John Belushi (as Bluto Blutarsky) said “Seven years of college down the drain” in the movie “Animal House,” it was a laugh line. That’s because few people spent seven years in college back then.

“The expectation was, ‘You’re done in four,’ and that was that,” said McMaster, the University of Minnesota Twin Cities vice provost.

“Somehow, things slipped along the way. But I think we’re returning to the sense that this is, in fact, a four-year degree, and let’s make sure we provide the resources to ensure that.”

Tom Dennis

Editor, Prairie Business