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July 29, 2014

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Henderson college’s grad rate disappoints

Nevada State College, new kid on block, prone to transfers, dropouts

Of 63 full-time freshmen who began studying at Nevada State College in fall 2002, the school’s inaugural semester, just 10 had graduated from the institution as of spring, according to the college.

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If no more finish over summer, Nevada’s newest public college will report a six-year graduation rate of just less than 16 percent — one-third of what California’s public state colleges achieve.

“It’s low,” President Fred Maryanski said. “I wish it were higher.”

Graduation rates are not the only measure of success, but often they are considered one of the most important for schools, such as NSC, that grant bachelor’s degrees.

“We’re dealing with state money here, and we need to produce graduates,” said Steve Sisolak, a member of the Board of Regents, which governs higher education in Nevada.

NSC officials, however, are unsure how accurate their graduation data are. They said their reported rate might be off because of poor record-keeping. For example, some students attending the school in its earliest years might have been classified incorrectly as freshmen when they were actually transfers, or vice versa.

Still, officials describe the rate as representative of graduation patterns.

Sandra Elman, president of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, the agency handling NSC’s application for accreditation, said a low graduation rate does not automatically mean a school is performing poorly.

“If you have an institution, an urban institution with perhaps first-generation students, a diverse student population, a working student population, there may be a whole host of factors that would contribute to a low graduation rate,” she said. “And it doesn’t necessarily mean that either the institution is not fulfilling its mission and goals, or that the students are not succeeding.”

Elman said that from her perspective, NSC “is progressing along on a very positive and constructive path.”

Half of NSC freshmen and seniors who responded to the 2007 National Survey of Student Engagement worked off campus more than 20 hours a week.

Most of the school’s students attend part time and thus take longer to earn degrees.

Howard Rosenberg, regents vice chairman and University of Nevada, Reno, professor, said if students are unwilling to put in enough effort to complete their coursework, they — and not colleges — are the culprits in their failure to graduate.

“I don’t view graduation rates as a problem anywhere unless I am not offering the classes that they need to graduate,” he said.

A dearth of classes in some fields in earlier years might have contributed to low graduation rates, NSC spokesman Spencer Stewart said.

Rosenberg sees that as a problem. But a young institution with a tight budget and a small staff needs time to build programs, he said, pointing out that even at older schools, students complain they can’t find classes they need.

Five of the full-time freshmen who entered NSC in fall 2002 are still enrolled. Thirty-two transferred. Three graduated from other four-year schools, and four earned degrees from two-year institutions.

NSC staff interviewed dropouts in 2007 and found that many had left because they could no longer afford college, Stewart said. But 83 percent said they were “very likely” to continue pursuing a bachelor’s degree within five years.

Some NSC students discover they are interested in majors the college does not offer, Stewart said. Others leave Nevada or transfer to UNLV.

“The student population is very transient ... We found that students viewed Nevada State College as a steppingstone,” Stewart said.

But NSC was not meant to act as a community college, preparing students to pursue an education elsewhere. A 2001 report supporting establishment of the new school said Nevada needed a state college to produce more college graduates.

“Increasing baccalaureate degree production is a systemwide objective of the Board of Regents,” stated the report by a committee the Legislature created to assess the need for a new college. “The establishment of a four-year institution with a major emphasis on baccalaureate education may be the best alternative to increase baccalaureate degree production.”

Dan Klaich, executive vice chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education, said graduation rates should factor into regents’ evaluations of college presidents.

“It’s fair to look at the institution and say, ‘Look, your job is to ensure that these students make reasonable progress toward a degree. And you are getting money from the state to do that. Do your job,’ ” he said.

NSC has launched programs that Maryanski hopes will boost graduation rates.

Over the past two years, the school has worked to pair every upper-level student with a faculty mentor who can provide academic and career advice.

NSC began providing financial aid services to students directly last year, taking over from UNR, which had been handling those services for the young school.

The college is implementing an “early alert” program, which requires staff to contact struggling students to learn more about why they are doing poorly in class and to offer assistance.

And consultants will visit this summer to make recommendations on improving retention.

Though only 10 students from NSC’s first full-time freshman class had graduated from the college as of spring, the school has conferred 586 degrees since its inception, with many going to transfer students.

Still, the six-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time freshmen is a barometer that prospective students and some college ranking systems use to measure a school’s success.

The California State University system graduates more than 45 percent of its freshmen within six years, a higher percentage than UNLV. The system’s newest campus, at Channel Islands, began accepting freshmen in 2003 and graduated 25 percent of them within four years.

At NSC, graduation data for one small freshman class might not say much. But figures the school provided for freshmen entering in later years do not inspire much confidence. Of 54 who started in fall 2003, six have graduated from NSC. Of 76 who began in fall 2004, just two have earned degrees from the college.

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