Whatever happened to the 4-year degree?

September 21st, 2008  |  by  |  Published in Cover Story, Features, Sept. 2008

Illustration of Jon Oshiro, who graduated in 7 years with a math degree) saying, I met with a counselor and it still took me 7 years to get my bachelor's.

Jon Oshiro (graduated in 7 years with math degree). Illustration by Kip Aoki

It’s no accident that the U.S. Department of Education tracks and reports graduation rates based on a six-year cycle. Across the nation, ”four-year“ schools are finding that the majority of students spend six years on average earning a bachelor’s degree. University of Hawaiʻi campuses, like their sister institutions, are working to speed up the process. The new STAR degree audit system, for example, allows UH students to go online anytime through their MyUH portal to track their own progress and find out the impact that choices like changing majors will have on degree requirements and time to graduation.

Other issues affecting time-to-degree range from societal conditions to university policies and facilities. ”Some factors every institution struggles with, some are unique to Hawaiʻi,“ says Mānoa Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Francisco Hernandez. Nationally, six-year graduation rates for first-time, full-time freshmen range from 36 percent for the least selective baccalaureate campuses to 75 percent for selective doctoral institutions, averaging 57 percent overall, according to a 2006 National Center for Educational Statistics report that analyzed data from 1,301 public and private institutions grouped by their Carnegie clasification. (Mānoa graduates 54 percent of undergraduates within six years; UH Hilo, 31 percent. Figures aren’t available for UH West Oʻahu since it only recently admitted first-year students.)

Such studies have shortcomings. The statistics only consider students who enter fresh out of high school and don’t count degrees completed at another college. They don’t flag students who enter a college planning to transfer after a year (as 15 percent of new Mānoa students do) as successfully completing their educational objective. Nor do they indicate whether students dropped out, stopped out (planning to return) or remain enrolled, notes Hernandez. If you add the number of entering freshmen still enrolled, Mānoa’s six-year rate jumps by 12 percentage points (to 67 percent). Benchmark and peer universities gain only 2–3 percent (to 76 and 71 percent, respectively).

Illustration of Karen Shinkawa, who graduated in 4 years with a history degree, saying Keeping track of my credits helped me to graduate on time.

Karen Shinkawa (graduated in 4 years with history degree). Illustration by Kip Aoki

Improving time-to-degree as well as graduation rates requires examining some common assumptions.

Number of credits: Mānoa requires 124 credits to graduate; Hilo, 120. At 15 credits per semester, a student accumulates only 120 credits without taking summer school. Full-time Mānoa students average 13.7; Hilo, 14.3. Extensive core education requirements, once blamed for extending time to graduation, have been simplified and reduced to 35 credits at Mānoa. Hilo requires 40; completion of an associate degree fulfills the core, simplifying graduation requirements for transfer students, notes Hilo Director of Student Development James Mellon. Still, a late decision or change in choice of majors can leave students with additional credits to complete. ”The earlier a student decides on a major, and sticks to it, the more likely they are to get and stay on track to completing degree requirements,“ Mellon says. Hilo expanded its advising center staff from one to four in spring 2007 to help students select a major early and progress efficiently.

Still even with a heavy class load, students’ progress can be delayed if they can’t get into the required courses in the prescribed order, so campus officials are examining when and how often courses are offered.

Need to work: Nearly 70 percent of Mānoa undergraduates work, far more than the 49 percent of counterparts at comparable institutions, according to Mānoa’s February 2008 report, Student Academic Success: Highlights of Retention Data and Surveys (PDF). Nearly 6 out of 10 students say they work for personal rather than educational or family expenses (though 43 percent say they must work part-time to remain in school), and 70 percent admit that jobs take time from their schoolwork. The percentage of students who work has been dropping, with the report speculating a possible link to the slight rise in the six-year graduation rate.

Hilo advisors recommend that students work on-campus, where employment is limited to 20 hours a week during academic terms, and supervisors may be more sympathetic to scholastic demands. Increasing financial aid also helps ease the financial burden for those who must work. About half of first-time undergraduates at Mānoa received financial aid in 2004–05; the average award was $3,387, up from previous years. Passage of proposed federal legislation allowing Pell Grants to pay for summer coursework would help, Mellon says.

Illustration of Chris Lynch, who is working on a master's in Asian studies, saying If I had a tuition waiver to take summer classes, I'd have done that to graduate earlier

Chris Lynch (working on a master's in Asian studies). Illustration by Kip Aoki

Demographic factors: Transfer students are more likely to leave before completing a degree, as are part-time students, and UH outnumbers its peers on both counts. Some institutions don’t allow part-time study; in its commitment to student access, UH hasn’t gone that route, says system Vice President for Academic Planning and Policy Linda Johnsrud. The national graduation rate report also found an inverse, though not absolute, relationship between higher graduation rates and lower proportion of low-income students.

Past National Center for Education Statistics studies found that students who are the first generation in their families to pursue higher education are less prepared for college work and twice as likely to leave college before their second year (Mālamalama July 2002). One in 3 Mānoa students is first generation, compared to 1 in 5 nationally, but the percent has been dropping steadily from 51 percent in 1990. Graduation and success rates also vary by ethnicity. At Mānoa, the six-year success rate has consistently ranged from 80 percent for Chinese students to 46 percent for Caucasian, with Japanese, Filipino and Hawaiian falling in between.

Mānoa and Hilo offer both general and targeted support programs to help students stay on track. Hilo’s Kīpuka Native Hawaiian Student Center, Student Support Services Program and the Minority Access and Achievement Program closely monitor participating students to ensure they are on track, Mellon says. As part of its budget planning, Mānoa’s Student Academic Success Initiative outlines an ambitious plan for increasing advising and other academic support services, including online tutoring and peer-mentoring. The plan proposes summer academy to prepare incoming students with the basic skills to tackle college coursework and directs more grant aid to first-year students.

Engagement: In Mānoa studies, students who left campus shy of a degree cited quality of physical facilities and sense of safety as factors in their decision. How students experience a campus also includes a less tangible factor that educators call ”engagement.“ A 2007 national survey suggests that Mānoa’s first-year students are less engaged than comparison groups as measured by the level of academic challenge, amount of active and collaborative learning, degree of student-faculty interaction and involvement in co-curricular activities. ”Students want to be more engaged with faculty,“ says Hernandez. ”They want to spend more time on learning related to their career choices.“

In response the administration is focusing on more honors offerings and undergraduate research fellowships along with service and student life opportunities along with improvements to the physical campus. It’s not just students who benefit, Johnsrud says. ”By implementing strategies to retain students, decrease time-to-degree and graduate more degrees and certificate holders, UH advances the educational attainment of Hawaiʻi’s citizens, which is critical to the long-term wellbeing of our state.“

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