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October 25, 2014

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UNLV tries to deal with low graduation rates

Compare the graduation rates of UNLV or any other four-year institution to similar institutions online at collegeresults.org.

UNLV students are less likely to graduate within six years than their peers at similar institutions, if they graduate at all, according to a new comparison study released earlier this month.

The university's low graduation rate means that only about one out of 10 will graduate within four years and less than four out of 10 will graduate in six years.

That's pretty dismal compared with the national graduation rate and compared with similar urban, public institutions the same size and status as UNLV, according to 2003 data compiled by The Educational Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

The Educational Trust released a new Web-based comparison tool earlier this month that allows interested students, parents, stakeholders and university officials to compare the graduation rates of any four-year institution with similar institutions across the United States.

The data tracks only students who entered and graduated from each individual university based on what they reported to the U.S. Department of Education.

Only 12.3 percent of UNLV students graduate within four years, 29 percent graduate within five years, and 37.8 graduate within six years, according to the study.

Minority students are slightly worse off, with only 26.4 percent of blacks and 29.8 percent of Hispanics graduating in six years. Asian students outpace all other ethnic groups with a 46.4 percent graduation rate and women do better than men, earning their degrees by more than 10 percentage points.

UNLV's graduation rates place it in the middle of its 15-cohort pack, but about 12 percentage points lower than the top institution in its group, the University of Utah.

UNLV's graduation rate also remained relatively stagnant during the time period studied, rising only 0.3 percentage points between 1997 and 2003.

Most universities comparable to UNLV improved their graduation rates from 5 to 15 percentage points.

UNR has a slightly higher graduation rate than UNLV at 14.7 percent over a four-year period and 48.3 percent over a six-year period, having improved its graduation rate by almost 10 percent between 1997 and 2003.

But like UNLV, the Reno school's six-year graduation rate is also more than 12 percentage points lower than the top institution in its group, the University of Kentucky.

Both Nevada universities are below the national average of 37 percent of students graduating within a four-year period and 63 percent within a six-year period.

UNLV President Carol Harter said the statistics are "depressing."

While she doesn't dispute that UNLV needs to do more, she said that university officials do have to compete with Las Vegas' thriving service industry for its students. Because students can get good paying jobs in the casinos without a degree, many opt out of college shy of earning the diploma. Others work fulltime while they are taking classes toward a permanent career, but it takes them longer to make it through their program, Harter said.

"When you have non-traditional, older students that have jobs and families, they are not going to take the same straight path though college that other traditional students are going to take," Harter said.

Harter also believes that UNLV's selectivity - or lack thereof - plays a big factor in its graduation rate. UNLV must accept all students who have a GPA of 2.5 or higher.

"There is no question that the weaker the GPA is (coming in to college), the less likelihood there is for graduation," Harter said. "Until we move to the more selective GPAs, there is going to remain a lower-than-wished for graduation rate."

The factors Harter mentioned do play a big role in whether students finish their degrees, Kevin Carey, director of public policy research at The Educational Trust, said.

The life-situation of students, student preparedness for college, the availability of financial aid, and the money available for instruction and advising, are all factors that can negatively impact graduation rates beyond an institution's control.

But the 20 to 30 percentage point differences his organization found between similarly situated schools proved that there is a lot that universities can do to improve their graduation rates, Carey said.

Educational Trust put together the comparisons, the first of their kind, as a way of informing the public of the nation's poor graduation rates and to give universities benchmarks for improvement, Carey said.

UNLV was placed with similar institutions based on 11 different factors, including its Carnegie classification, which is that of a doctoral, research-intensive institution, the number of full-time equivalent students, money spent per student, selectivity, median SAT score for the recent freshman class, percentage of low-income students, percentage of non-traditional students 25 years or older and percentage of part-time undergraduates.

The most important factors a university can influence is how it reaches out to students in their first years, the level of advisement given to students, whether remedial needs are met and the quality of instruction, Carey said. It's also important that a university keep its own data on why students drop out or take longer than six years to complete their degrees.

Harter said that those are all areas in which UNLV is striving to improve, particularly with the development of its new University College. The new college, which opened last semester, gives undeclared UNLV students a home while they figure out what they want to do and helps students farther along finish their degrees.

Harter also said the university needs more advisers to help students plan out their degree and more professors to be able to make sure students are getting the classes they need at the right time. The problem is having enough money to meet both of those needs.

"When you are growing as rapidly as we are, you are typically $1,200 to $1,500 behind the curve in funding per student to fund enough classes, faculty and students services to meet the need," Harter said.

UNR has improved its graduation rate over the last few years by opening up an advising center for undeclared students, by offering free tutoring and mentoring programs, by keeping in contact with students who do leave in order to bring them back in, and by working toward a more vibrant campus life that will draw students to the university, said Shannon Ellis, vice president of student services.

Student outreach and advising are the most important factors in retaining students, Ellis said.

Quality advising is a major concern for UNLV students, according to several hanging out in the Moyer Student Union Tuesday. Many said they have taken classes they didn't need, prolonging their graduation date.

"It's frightening," sophomore education major Amanda Allred said of UNLV's graduation rate. "You use to be able to graduate in four years and now its five minimum."

The 20-year-old said it will likely take her five or even six years to complete her degree and get her teaching credential -- and that's if life doesn't get in the way of her plans.

For the most part though, students agreed with Harter that life does get in the way for many UNLV students. They chose to either take it slow going through college or are lured away by promises of making "$40,000 a year parking cars at the Venetian," as 18-year-old freshman Samantha Miller put it.

Some, like 28-year-old sophomore Lucia O'Rear, go slow because her two children make it difficult to schedule her computer science courses. Others, just don't feel the need to rush through in four years, 20-year-old marketing junior Lauren Zimmerman said.

"This is a commuter college," Zimmerman said. "People have a lot of other things to do."

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