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Amy Dalrymple, Forum News Service, Published December 12 2010

MSUM aims to boost its graduation rates after low mark

Edna Szymanski takes it personally if a student doesn’t graduate.

The Minnesota State University Moorhead president appointed a task force to find out why the university’s graduation rate is lower than the rate at similar schools.

And now she wants to use that data to start fixing it.

The university task force on retention and graduation rate improvement issued its first report last week.

It found that in a comparison of 15 similar universities, MSUM ranked 13th with its six-year graduation rate of 40 percent.

Improving that graduation rate is one of Szymanski’s highest priorities as president.

“Every kid that I welcome, I want to make sure that kid’s going to be crossing the stage at graduation,” Szymanski said. “That is the bottom line for me.”

The issue is not unique to MSUM.

North Dakota State University’s six-year graduation rate of 47 percent is also lower than the rate at similar schools. (Data is for students who entered in 2002, the most recent year comparative data is available.)

Nationally, improving graduation rates is a topic at many college campuses after President Barack Obama identified it as one of his priorities.

A main goal of the MSUM task force is to prevent students from accumulating more debt by staying in school longer than necessary. Each additional year at MSUM adds an average of $7,000 to a student’s debt, officials estimate.

“As we recruit students, if we’re not doing everything we can to get them through in a timely manner, then we’re being unfair to them,” said Denise Gorsline, dean of the university college.

One recommendation of the task force is more intrusive advising focused on getting students to take courses at the right time, said Ted Gracyk, MSUM philosophy professor and chairman of the task force.

“Face-to-face advising time appears to be an important ingredient in getting students to stay on track, to take the right courses,” Gracyk said.

Advising for students who haven’t declared majors is particularly important, the task force found.

MSUM students who are “undeclared” have lower graduation rates than students enrolled in a college. Students in MSUM’s College of Education and Human Services have the highest rates, averaging about 60 percent.

An important asterisk to the graduation rate discussion is that the figures do not count all college students. The rates reported nationally measure how many first-time, full-time freshmen graduate from that college in six years. The rates don’t reflect part-time students or students who transferred and successfully completed college elsewhere.

However, because all colleges calculate graduation rates the same way, officials use them as benchmarks to compare how they’re performing with similar schools.

One change MSUM already adopted should have a positive impact on graduation rates, Gracyk said.

Many MSUM students used to take 12 credits per semester, which is considered full time for financial aid purposes, but not for graduating in four years, Gracyk said.

MSUM changed its tuition structure so students can take more than 12 credits without paying more, giving students an incentive to take an extra class.

The task force plans to continue meeting weekly next semester, looking at possible solutions such as an early warning system to identify at-risk students.

“I would expect to see that in a year or two we’ll start to see improvement,” Gracyk said. “But the problem with this whole topic is graduation rates take a while to show up.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Amy Dalrymple at (701) 241-5590