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Editorial: Graduation rates rising

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | MARCH 14, 2014 5:00 AM

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The four-year graduation rate at the University of Iowa has crept up to 51.1 percent for the class that entered the UI in 2009, according to a report from the state Board of Regents presented at the regents’ Wednesday meeting in Iowa City.

That four-year graduation rate is up from 48.2 percent for the class that entered the UI in 2008. Six-year graduation rates are higher but have remained flat, approximately 70 percent in recent years.

The UI compares favorably with public research universities around the country, but these statistics are nevertheless a little shocking — only slightly more than half of students entering the UI graduate on time. Still, these numbers somewhat promising — the trends are moving in the right direction. As college costs balloon and the benefits of a college degree rise in an increasingly polarized job market, ensuring the timely graduation of its students should be a top priority for the university.

One of the crucial components of timely graduation is ensuring that students stay enrolled in school. Student retention, particularly during the first year, has been a major focus of the UI and the regents. They’ve implemented a number of first-year programs and academic-advising strategies in an effort to turn more first-year students into sophomores.

These efforts have translated into a modest rise in retention rates over the last decade. Last fall, the UI retained 85.8 percent of the entering class of 2012, up from 83.2 percent a decade ago.

This modest increase is more of a coup than it seems on its face — as retention has increased at Iowa, it has fallen on average at four-year schools across the country. According to data from ACT, the average first-year retention rate was 71.9 percent in 2013, down from 74.8 percent in 1992.

The positive graduation and retention trends at the UI seem to indicate that, at least around here, the promise of higher education may finally be living up to expectations.

Since the early 1980s, when the economic benefits of a college degree began to become more pronounced, the proportion of U.S. high-schoolers choosing to attend college has grown. As the number of higher-education students rose in subsequent decades, the number of college dropouts increased as well, effectively deflating graduation rates across the country.

This phenomenon was likely due to an aggregate decline in the academic ability of college students as higher education opened up for more than just the nation’s top high-school students. That explains why retention graduation rates are highly correlated with academic performance and why the nation’s most selective schools boast retention rates near 100 percent.

So, on a national level, college has been underwhelming somewhat as a tool for extending social mobility. For too long, the increased flow of American students into universities has led to a disproportionately small rise in college graduation and a significantly larger number of students slipping through the cracks, collecting debt, not degrees. 

We hope that that phenomenon is indeed changing here. The UI has done a good job of holding on to its students and graduation rates are rising. We encourage the university to continue its efforts to put its students on a path toward on-time graduation.


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