4-year Benchmark for Undergraduate Degree is Archaic

4-year Benchmark for Undergraduate Degree is Archaic

Tampa Tribune
November 30, 2007

Public institutions throughout the nation are under tremendous pressure to improve their graduation rates because lingering and part-time students take up space where freshmen could be placed while taxpayers foot almost 2/3rds of the tuition bill.

Florida is no different, and the media and legislatures alike are asking their public universities the rhetorical question – How many years does it take to get a 4-year degree?  This question is especially asked of University of South Florida (USF), where the 4-year graduation rate is a low 21% as compared to a national average of 35%.  In an editorial of November 21, 2007, Tampa Tribune claims that USF is paying lip service to this issue.

I believe that, in the 21st century, the use of 4-year graduation rate is an archaic benchmark.

Last spring when my daughter majoring in mass communications was registering for her junior year classes at USF, she announced that she loved her history class so much that she wanted to be a double major in history.  Being a cheerleader for multidisciplinary education, I encouraged this announcement enthusiastically.  However, on her part, this was a bad move for USF because she will now graduate in four and a half years.

Last summer, a student asked me for advice, “Dr. Kaw, should I go for a full-time internship at a local power company while taking one or two evening classes.”  Having attended an undergraduate institution where two internships of three and six months were required and having seen the tangible and experiential benefits of doing so, my advice was a categorical yes.  Yet another bad move for USF as it will delay his graduation another semester.

The national rate for 4-year graduation is 35% and the rate is declining steadily because of the changing demographics of students.  At USF, the reasons for low graduation rates are simple.  In addition to students changing/adding majors and opting for co-operative programs/internships, we have more students who need to work part-time to go to school, half of our students are transfer students (USF accepts the most number of transfer students of any public university in the nation; transfer students do not get counted in the on-time graduation statistics), more freshmen need remedial work, student populations in urban areas are more mobile and graduate elsewhere, and many are nontraditional career-changing and older students.

USF 4-year 21% graduation rate is constantly compared to the 51% graduation rates of University of Florida (UF).

One of the two major indicators of 4-year graduation rates that work in UF’s favor is high family income of incoming freshmen.  In his book The Future of Higher Education, Frank Newman reports that 41% of undergraduates whose family income is in the top quartile get degrees within five years, but only 6% from the bottom quartile graduate in the same time period.  The American dream of higher education is being pursued more and more by low income and older students.

The other major indicator of 4-year graduation rate is high tuition costs.  In Florida, we are inevitably leaning toward high tuition costs as is evident from the differential tuition at UF, FSU and USF starting spring 2008.

Differential tuition will result in higher graduation rates at USF as the extra money generated is assumed to make sure that the classes needed by our undergraduates are available when they need them.  Coupled with the recently adopted online-tracking system of freshmen progress toward graduation, weekly recitation sessions for bottleneck courses such as mathematics, increased on-campus housing, and the national spotlight on the football team, USF will further succeed in improving their graduation rates.

Like any other aspiring public research institutions, UF, USF and FSU are in a status war – whether it is to improve their US News and World Report ranking or being invited to the American Association of Universities (AAU).  Although no one will argue with the benchmarks behind such status, the categorical recognition that the undergraduate is the biggest consumer of learning is critical.  That is why the legislature needs to make sure that the differential tuition is used to hire faculty whose teaching assignment is mostly core undergraduate courses.

It would be in the best interests of all to give USF till 2010 to show improvement in the more pragmatic 6-year graduation rates.

The public should also convince their legislatures to increase simultaneously the undergraduate tuition rates, faculty dedicated mostly to undergraduate teaching, and most importantly need-based scholarships.

PS.  The newspaper while asking the rhetorical question – “Guess, who is in Grant’s tomb?” may not have been the best analogy to use.  “How many points does a 3-point field goal account for in a basketball game?” may be a more contemporary analogy – just ask ex-University of Georgia coach, Jim Harrick Sr.  He has 19 more rhetorical multiple-choice questions in his test bank.  Using the 4-year benchmark, in fact, started with the NCAA being concerned about low graduation rates among athletes.

Autar Kaw, “4-year Benchmark for Undergraduate Degree is Archaic”, Commentary Tampa Tribune, November 30, 2007, last accessed at http://autarkaw.com/4-year-benchmark-for-undergraduate-degree-is-archaic/