Tuesday, January 25, 2005
OU’s graduation rates continue to improve
By Rebecca Wyatt, OU Web Writer
Oakland University's Office of Institutional Research and Assessment reports that the university’s graduation rates have increased and the average time to degree has decreased again this year, marking the third consecutive year of improvement in these important measures.
These changes mark the first time the rates have increased to this extent since the current tracking system was put in place for the freshman class of 1984. The consistency of the improvement in these rates suggests this is not a one-time event, according to Laura Schartman, director of the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment.
After hovering around an average of 40 to 41 percent for more than 20 years, the six-year rate rose to almost 47 percent this year. The four and five year graduation rates also saw similar increases, suggesting that programs OU has to improve retention and graduation rates are working.
Part of the improved graduation rate can be attributed to programs like COM 101, a 12-week seminar for first-year students that demonstrates how communication and relationship development can improve their chances of success in college. COM 101 also contributes to improved first-year retention, which hovers at about 75 percent. Research shows that students who participate in COM 101 have graduated at a higher rate than those who did not.
OU also offers other programs designed to help students and improve freshman retention and graduation rates. Among those programs is Connections, where first-year students from the same major take two or three general education classes together. By taking classes together and meeting weekly with a peer leader, students form study groups and bonds with each other and faculty. Another program is Freshmen OUtlook, from which freshmen receive e-mails giving them tips and advice for surviving their first year of college.
However, the single most important factor contributing to the higher graduation rates is that students are taking more classes per semester.
The number of credits taken by full-time students had been dropping since the 1970s, but in 1997, a turnaround began when freshmen started taking more credits, especially in their first terms.
Studies done by the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment showed that students who enroll in four classes in their first semester are more likely to graduate than those who enroll in three classes. Students who take fewer classes are extending the time it will take to complete their degree. And, students who take longer to complete school have more obstacles that can come up.
"The longer it takes, the more likely it is that other life factors will interrupt their education," Schartman said.
In the mid 1990s, the Office of New Student Programs began reinforcing the importance of enrolling in a full-time, 16-credit schedule to incoming freshmen. The increased course loads resulted in shortening the time it takes a student to graduate, which in turn leads to more students graduating.
Along with the improvement in graduation rates, there has been a decrease in the average time-to-degree, another measure that is receiving a lot of public scrutiny. The average time to complete a degree for an OU student who graduated in 2002 was 5.2 years, down from 5.8 years in 1995.
A report done by the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment in 2001 suggested that time to degree increased for students who took lighter credit loads, stopped more frequently and repeated more courses.
Students who graduated in four years or less averaged four courses per semester. Those who took six years to graduate averaged about three courses. Schartman says it is important for incoming freshmen to set the tone in their first semester by taking a true full-load of 16 credits instead of the reduced full-time schedule of 12 credits.
"If they don't make the initial commitment, it's hard to go back and recommit," she said.
Schartman said she believes OU can keep this positive trend going, however, one concern she has is that it may become more difficult for students to complete their degrees in a reasonable time if further budget cuts reduce some departments’ ability to offer courses that students need to graduate.
“Course availability is really key to keeping this trend going,” Schartman said.
For more information on COM 101, Connections or Freshman Outlook, visit the New Student Programs Web site. To read more about the trends in graduation rates and time-to-degree, go to the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment Web site.