New stats on retention and graduation signal payoff for success efforts
Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The University of Iowa’s four-year graduation rate reached 51.1 percent for undergraduate students who enrolled in 2009—the highest rate in recent memory.

The statistic was among retention and graduation figures cited in a report prepared by Iowa Board of Regents staff and presented during the board’s March 12 meeting in Iowa City.

UI leaders say the numbers—particularly the four-year figure—offer signs that the university’s emphasis on undergraduate student success is paying off.

“We’re committed to keeping a University of Iowa education affordable, and one of the most effective ways to do that is helping students graduate in four years,” says P. Barry Butler, UI executive vice president and provost.

Last year, the university reported a 48.2 percent four-year graduation rate. UI officials expect the numbers to fluctuate, but they’re determined to keep timely graduation rates inching higher.

Setting a four-year goal

For years, the UI has offered most incoming undergraduates the option of signing on to a four-year graduation plan. The plan guarantees access to required courses when students meet established benchmarks, and offers substitute courses or tuition waivers when students can’t get the classes they need to graduate on time.

Starting this year, all new students (save for those in a handful of majors) will automatically be enrolled in the plan.

“With efficient planning and advising, students can complete almost any of our majors in four years,” says Beth Ingram, associate provost for undergraduate education.

While graduating more students in four years remains the goal, Ingram and colleagues are eager to see whether student-success initiatives also impact the university’s six-year graduation rate, another common measure of timely degree completion.

The UI six-year grad rate stands at 69.6 percent for undergraduates who enrolled in 2007, down slightly from a recent peak of 70.8 percent for the class that enrolled in 2005. Nationally, the six-year graduation rate for public four-year colleges is 48.9 percent.

Since some of the university’s most prominent success programs were developed over the last two to three years, a higher six-year rate could be just over the horizon.

Higher retention, faster graduation

The first step to seeing students graduate on time is keeping them on campus once they’ve enrolled.

“We want to help students make the transition to college by emphasizing academic expectations and a sense of community,” Ingram says. “We also aim to identify students are having trouble adjusting and offer the help they need.”

The regents’ report showed that 85.8 percent of first-year UI students who enrolled in fall 2012 returned last fall to continue their studies.

The one-year retention rate was up slightly from the 85.5 percent reported the class who enrolled in 2011, and down less than a point from the peak of 86.6 percent for students who arrived in 2009.

Like graduation rates, the university’s retention rate exceeds the national average of 77.7 percent for public four-year colleges. The trend is another positive sign for UI success initiatives.

Fall 2013 marked the third year for On Iowa!, an orientation program required of first-year students. Events emphasize academic skills, decision-making, and campus traditions, building camaraderie among each new class.

Incoming students living on campus also join residence-hall living-learning communities built around academics and other interests. Meanwhile, first-year seminars offer students the chance to connect with faculty and each other in the classroom.

The UI surveys all new students within weeks of their arrival, looking for signs of academic, financial, social, or other concerns. Academic Support and Retention staff rally campus colleagues to offer proactive, personalized follow up for students who may be struggling.

A big school that feels small

In 2006, the UI established the Student Success Team, a cross-campus group open to faculty, staff, and students interested in developing programs that foster undergraduate achievement.

Initiatives like On Iowa! began with this group, but quickly have become part of the university’s culture—once they’ve proven their worth. From the start, the UI focus on student success has emphasized assessment, improvement, and results.

Hard numbers like retention and graduation rates suggest the effort is meeting its goals. But the impact is demonstrated in more subtle ways, too.

“Our approach to student success seems especially collaborative and uniquely Iowa,” Ingram says. “We see people working across unit lines to solve problems, often in the service of individual students.”

Collectively, these efforts help make a major university feel like a much smaller school.

“Students are looking for institutions and programs that feel like the right fit,” Butler says. “We want to give every student the opportunity to connect and chart the course that serves her or his goals effectively, efficiently, and economically.”