TO: Faculty and Staff
FR: Stephen T. Hulbert, President
Recent articles in the Times Picayune and USA Today have called attention to the 6-year graduation rates of Louisiana universities citing data collected by CABL and Education Trust. The articles also discuss the state’s newly proposed funding formula which incorporates graduation rates as major criterion for funding universities. Although the actual graduation rates cited vary by publication (See CABL vs. Education Trust) there is consistency in the fact that graduation rates for ALL Louisiana institutions (private and state supported) are below those of their peer institutions with the exception of Louisiana Tech. (See Appendix A)
Regional institutions with lower admission standards (SREB III and IV institutions – primarily undergraduate teaching institutions) than those of research institutions must maintain the same rigor in terms of academic expectations so that our students will pass the same national boards and exams (such as nursing or certified public accountant) as those students attending research institutions. It should not be surprising, then, that graduation rates for regional institutions will be lower than those of research institutions with higher admission standards. But what is the explanation for the lower graduation rates for ALL Louisiana institutions?
The purpose of this paper is to alert readers to some of the variables that have been identified as impacting graduation rates and describe actions that have already been taken to address the graduation rate issue. Although this discussion will use Nicholls initiatives and data to illustrate the changes, note that the trends reported are reflective of all University of Louisiana System universities.
The Postsecondary Education Review Commission (PERC) has recently begun its examination of the higher education system in Louisiana to make recommendations for improving the efficiency and effectiveness of our system. But Louisiana institutions of higher learning have been aware of the state’s historically low graduation rates and have been taking steps to address this issue for some time now. Changes within the universities have been made to improve graduation rates over the last six or seven years, even before admission standards were implemented. Indeed projected graduation rates for Nicholls State University are already indicating a significant increase for its 2003 pre-admission standards cohort.
It is critical that the Postsecondary Education Review Commission not rely on data based on pre-selective admissions standards that does not clearly reflect the changes that have occurred at our regional institutions. The results of our efforts will become most clear with the 2012 graduation rates – for the 2006 cohort. For Nicholls and other universities located in the southern region, it is important to use the 2006 cohort rather than the 2005 cohort since there was much disruption to enrollment due to the effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Those familiar with the Louisiana system of higher education know that up until the early 2000s, our students were able to enter many of our universities through an open admissions policy – there were no criteria for admitting students, so many students were admitted who, admittedly, were unprepared for college level work. Indeed, the six-year graduation rate for Nicholls has consistently been between 25% and 30%. But in 2005, Nicholls and other sister institutions began implementing admission standards that called for “selective” admissions based on numerous criteria. It is anticipated that this change in the admission standards of our university will lead to an increase in our six-year graduation rate.
Specifically, greatly improved retention rates, quality of students measured by ACT scores, and higher high school GPAs, already point to much improved graduation rates for the 2006 cohort. The four-year bachelor seeking, same institution graduation rate has increased from 8.7% for the 2000 cohort to 13.4% for the 2005 cohort. Six year rates for this cohort will not be officially calculated and reported until 2011. In adjusting IPEDS reporting data (bachelor seeking, same institution) to reflect credentials of students entering the university in 2001-02 to the anticipated admissions criteria, Nicholls experienced an increased graduation rate from 25.9% for the 2000-2001 cohort to 34.9% for the 2003-04 cohort.
HIGH SCHOOL PREPARATION
There is the question of why graduation rates for all Louisiana institutions are lower than average. One possible explanation points to the preparation of our high school graduates. But this too is changing and should lead to improved graduation rates for all Louisiana institutions. The Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) was initiated to promote academic success by requiring completion of a college-preparatory core curriculum. Students receive financial incentives based on high school performance and must maintain their performance level in higher education to continue receiving their awards. According to TOPS Report published by the Board of Regents (Appendix A), 51% of entering freshmen received TOPS in the fall 2007. Graduation rates for TOPS recipients averaged 58% from the 1998 to the 2001 cohorts. In this vain, Nicholls has had the percentage of first-time freshmen receiving TOPS increase from 35.1% in 2000 to 59.0% in 2009.
According to the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE), the quality of first-time college freshmen entering into higher education has improved significantly in recent years. From the LDOE report on Fall 2008 First-Time College Freshmen State Report, the percentage of students enrolled in developmental education in either a two-year or four-year public or nonpublic college or university decreased from 36% of the fall 2001 cohort to 26% of the fall 2008 cohort. The average ACT Composite score improved from the fall 2001 freshmen class average of 19.6 to the fall 2008 class average of 20.3. The increase in quality has not been achieved at the expense of access. There are more students from the 2008 high school graduating class, 21,273 (50% of high school graduates) than from the 2001 graduating class 20,787 (44%) enrolled in higher education in the state.
EXTERNAL VARIABLES IMPACTING GRADUATION RATES
There are factors unique to university locations that are likely to impact graduation rates, such as the availability of jobs that require less than a four year degree, the unemployment rate, or natural disasters. For example, south Louisiana has experienced numerous devastating hurricanes since 2005 that have impacted retention and, thus, graduation rates.
Additionally, with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, the Houma-Thibodaux Metro area offers its community many construction and oil-field related jobs at attractive wages which encourages potential students to enter the job market rather than the university or community college system. Indeed, a recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau reports that “The Houma-Thibodaux metro area, one of eight metropolitan areas in the state, had a median income of $30,819 last year. That’s the highest median income for Louisiana workers 16 years and older. Statewide, the median income was $26,457 in 2008. . . State demographers said jobs in the local oil-and-gas industry are likely the root of the healthy salaries, especially for workers with only high-school educations”. (See Appendix A)
Another factor impacting graduation rates is the need of many of our students to work while attending school, forcing many to limit course loads. Institutions in the University of Louisiana System (ULS) have participated in the ACT Student Opinion Survey for many years. Students are asked to report how many hours per week they work. According to the most recent survey, administered in the spring of 2009, over half (50.9%) of the students in the ULS reported working 11 or more hours per week. Even more detrimental to academic progress, more than a fourth of the ULS students (27.8%) work in excess of 20 hours per week.
Nicholls State University, along with other system institutions, has long recognized the need to focus on student retention and, thus, in addition to increasing admission standards, Nicholls has implemented numerous strategies in regards to retention. Major initiatives have included revamping the freshman math program in an effort to increase the student completion rate in these courses; developing a University College with a focus on student retention; implementing a Master Advisor Program to help develop faculty in their advising efforts; and developing a Center for Advancing Faculty Engagement to assist faculty in their teaching efforts.
In response to the workforce needs of the regions, the nursing bachelors program is now conducting exceptional sessions each summer offering all clinical nursing courses. It is anticipated that this session will accelerate progression to graduation by one entire academic year for all nursing students who participate.
Many campus initiatives have been implemented since 2003 to improve systems for conducting business with the campus in terms of registration and fee payments. It is unclear what impact each of these initiatives has had individually, but it is clear that the efforts are leading to better retention and graduation rates. The evidence of this improvement is demonstrated in much improved retention rates. Specifically, Nicholls’ statewide retention rates of students from freshman to sophomore year have already increased from 65% for the 2001-02 cohort to 78.7% for the 2007-08 cohort. Nicholls’ same institution rate rose from 55.5% to 66.3% over the same time frame.
As is evident in Figure 1 (attached), as retention rates increase graduation rates will follow. The dip in the retention from 2004 to 2005 is due to the Katrina effect. The retention rate has begun to climb back up from that point. All of this taken together leads to a valid conclusion that 6-year graduation rates will be greatly improved by 2012!
Times Picayune article of Louisiana Graduation Rates
USA Today article on Formula Funding
Education Trust Site:
Louisiana Department of Education, Louisiana First-Time College Freshmen State Report Fall 2008, June 2009.
Louisiana Board of Regents, TOPS Report, May 2009.
U.S. Census Bureau Reports, Daily Comet, September 22, 2009.