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Area four-year colleges focus on boosting grad rates

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Area private colleges have more success getting students to graduate in four years, and public universities are taking note.

Improving student success is a major focus of the upcoming budget request for the North Dakota University System.

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"What we're finding out is we don't have a lot of student-

support mechanisms in place that help students get through and complete in a timely manner," said Michel Hillman, vice chancellor for academic and student affairs.

While public universities have different missions than private colleges - primarily to be accessible - there are lessons public universities can learn from their private counterparts, Hillman said.

"They simply have more support services in place than we have on our campuses," Hillman said.

Behind the rates

College graduation rates can be misleading. Students who transfer to another college are counted as drop-outs, and part-time students are not considered.

But the rates are a measure of student success, and each of the local four-year campuses has room for improvement.

While Concordia College is the strongest local campus, with 67 percent of its students graduating in six years, according to the most current numbers, it lags behind other Minnesota private colleges.

North Dakota State University has a 55 percent six-year graduation rate, ranking near the bottom in a list of research universities considered to be similar.

Minnesota State University Moorhead reports 43 percent of students graduating in six years, which is lower than most other universities in the Minnesota state system.

MSUM also estimates that 35 percent of students transfer to another campus within six years. NDSU and Concordia do not calculate this rate.

Cutting costs

In interviews with more than 25 Fargo-Moorhead college students who are graduating this spring, consistent themes emerged.

Those who are graduating on time had solid advising and had a career path in mind when they became college students.

Those who took a bit longer tended to have more work and family responsibilities, switched their majors dramatically or transferred from outside the university system.

Costs are a major reason college officials encourage students to graduate in four years.

"No matter where you go, higher education is getting to be costly, private or public," said Concordia Provost Mark Krejci.

Kelsey Pankratz, a vocal performance major who just graduated from Concordia, said she and most of her peers aimed to finish in four years "so we don't have to pay more tuition."

Megan Haney, who will graduate this week from NDSU, estimates she saved $15,000 by graduating in three years.

Haney, an apparel and textiles/retail merchandising major, took college courses her final two years of high school and had 23 credits when she came to NDSU.

"I knew school wasn't my favorite thing, so I wanted to get done as soon as possible," Haney said.

Graduating in four rather than five years also means students will get out into the work force a year earlier and begin earning money, said Diane Solinger, MSUM's associate vice president for student affairs.

Work vs. school

Most local students work in addition to going to college, and many still graduate on time, but if they start to work 30 to 40 hours a week, that can mean extra semesters of college, Solinger said.

"If their first priority becomes their job instead of school, they get those priorities confused and sometimes they'll go longer," she said.

Family responsibility is another factor.

Thomas Lucht, 25, is graduating from MSUM this spring after seven years.

In addition to changing majors three times, Lucht went to school part time when his girlfriend was pregnant with their daughter, now 2.

High school preparation is a big predictor of college success.

"Some of our students are coming in very focused on a career but perhaps not overall well prepared," said Kate Haugen, NDSU's associate vice president for student affairs. "So they have to do a catch-up class."

On the other hand, many students are taking advantage of advanced placement or college credit courses in high school, which help them graduate sooner.

Some programs are just not designed to be finished in four years.

That skews NDSU's four-year graduation rate because the university has many engineering, architecture and pharmacy majors, programs that take at least five to six years to complete, Haugen said.

Advising is key

At Concordia, helping students graduate in four years begins with the faculty, Krejci said.

Faculty advisers are not overwhelmed with too many students, and they can intervene early if there's a problem "rather than have their grades implode," he said.

"The advantage of private education is more-intense mentoring relationships with our students so they can progress through in a four-year process," Krejci said.

Anne Wiederrich, who graduated from Concordia this spring, credited regular meetings with her adviser and her close-knit department with keeping her on track.

"The professors and advisers really help you plan out your schedule freshman year," said Wiederrich, an elementary education major. "They lay it out for you right away."

NDSU and MSUM have also recognized the importance of advising.

NDSU has added professional advisers who work with students their first two years, said Provost Craig Schnell. The final two years, students work with a faculty mentor.

"If a student is not advised correctly, it could cost them up to a year," Schnell said.

MSUM has full-time advisers working in the Academic Resource Office who also can help students with questions about what courses to register for, Solinger said.

Programs to help

At MSUM, one of President Edna Szymanski's goals is to improve retention and graduation rates.

The university added learning communities in the residence halls this fall and will expand them next year.

"Students tend to be more engaged, be more comfortable using their faculty member as a resource," Solinger said.

MSUM is adding an early alert system, which will notify the Academic Resource Office if a student is struggling.

NDSU officials realized they had many resources to help freshmen but nothing targeted for sophomores, Haugen said. A new program called Sophomore Year Experience aims to boost retention between the second and third years of college.

NDSU also recently started a program called ReDiscover U, which is geared toward students who may be floundering or lack focus, Haugen said. It gives them a chance to meet with a variety of advisers and learn about a new major.

The budget request for the North Dakota University System would add several new initiatives to support students, including mental health counselors and online tutoring services.

"We're really trying to do a large number of things that really promote student success," Hillman said.

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