The University of Washington is the state’s flagship institution and a powerhouse of scientific research, but a decade ago, it was no standout when it came to how many students graduated in four years.
Back then, more than half of all undergraduates at the UW’s Seattle campus took five years to earn their degrees – and sometimes six.
In the past 10 years, rising tuition and a renewed effort to keep more students from drifting over the four-year line has led to a big increase in on-time graduation.
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In 2015 – the latest figures available – nearly two-thirds of the freshmen who entered in 2011 had earned a degree in four years.
Some Washington colleges still cater to a lot of “super-seniors” – students who need an extra year – and even “super-super seniors.” At Washington State University in 2015, just 38 percent of students finished in four years.
Still, WSU has improved, as have most Washington colleges.
Nationally, a college’s published graduation rate is measured by how many students finish in six years. But because even an extra year can dramatically increase the price of a degree, many colleges are trying to get students through faster.
“We know if we can create learning communities, make sure they can get into their majors more quickly and give them academic support in the first year, there’s a greater chance of success,” said Ed Taylor, the UW’s vice provost and dean of undergraduate academic affairs.
A degree taking five-plus years costs taxpayers, too, because state colleges and universities subsidize in-state students to the tune of millions of dollars a year. A student who takes an extra year or two means more money from the state coffers.
At the UW, the focus on getting more students to graduate on time was launched by a provost’s report two years ago that probed why some students dropped out, never earning a degree at all. A retention task force began applying the lessons learned – not only to keep students from dropping out, but also to help them graduate on time.
The university says it is doing a better job of making it clear which courses students must take to get a degree in a major, and jumping in quickly when a student’s grade-point average falters.
UW students interviewed for this story said those changes help, but they often need to actively look for the assistance they need.
“Honestly – the school’s big – if you don’t look for the resources, they’re not going to come running to you,” said senior Ruhama Berta. A law, society and justice major, she’s on track to graduate in four years, then plans to go to law school.
Five years ago at the UW, students also sometimes had a hard time getting into “gateway” classes – the prerequisites they needed for entry into harder courses – forcing them to take longer to complete a degree.
That problem has largely been fixed by adding more classes and doing a better job of projecting which courses will be in greatest demand.
Today, UW’s super-seniors say they needed extra time because they switched majors, wanted to explore their options or couldn’t get into the program they wanted.
Mulki Mohamed, who grew up in Seattle, is majoring in human-centered design and engineering and said she didn’t immediately decide on the right path. The senior said her fifth year will afford her a little extra breathing room in her schedule.
But many say the cost motivates them to stick to four years.
Even in-state students at the UW pay $11,284 a year in tuition and fees alone, up from $6,385 just 10 years ago. Living expenses in pricey Seattle add another $12,000 to the annual cost, the UW estimates.
Luke Mounger, a junior from Mercer Island majoring in finance, says his parents and grandparents are helping to pay for his education, and finishing in four “is important to me – I owe it to them to graduate as soon as I can.”
The stakes for out-of-state students is even higher because they pay more than three times what in-state students do.
That’s why parent Yadira Huerta’s hand shot up during a parent orientation in September. Her daughter, Alexis, was coming to the UW from California.
“Are you going to help students with guidance, so they could get out in four years?” she asked.
The short answer: yes.
Counselors provided these tips: Get your student to talk to an adviser early and often. Encourage them to get involved in activities beyond class. Tell them to drop in on their professors during open office hours.
Huerta said she was reassured by the advice. An extra year, she said, could cost the family almost $60,000.
Mining the data
At other colleges, officials say they are mining data on student performance for insights.
For example, after Western Washington University did a careful study of 10 years of data, it discovered that students who took a full load from the start of their college careers did better overall – perhaps because they learned how to manage their time more effectively, said Steven VanderStaay, Western’s vice provost for undergraduate education.
Many students were taking fewer credits than they needed, on the assumption they would get better grades if they had more time to study.
So the university started a campaign emphasizing the importance of taking a full load – 15 credits – every quarter. Students must earn 180 credits to graduate.
Washington State University discovered one big problem was its admissions policy.
Six years ago, WSU began admitting nearly every who student applied, and the freshman retention rate took a nosedive.
“We thought we were doing the right thing” by admitting “as many students as possible, and as diverse an array as possible,” said Erica Austin, vice provost for academic affairs. But in 2014, WSU’s worst year, 22 percent of freshmen didn’t return.
Because of the way graduation rates are calculated – they are a measure of how many first-time, full-time freshmen have graduated in four, five and six years – those students will drag down WSU’s numbers in the years to come.
WSU now encourages struggling students to withdraw and enroll at a community college to work on their skills, then return when they are ready, she said. A branch of Spokane Falls Community College has even relocated – from a site in downtown Pullman to the WSU campus – to help ease the transition.
WSU is using a predictive analytics tool to identify students who are not on track to graduate, and a mobile app that helps a student decide on a major. It also sends “push” notifications when deadlines come up, such as for financial aid or class sign-ups.
The school with the lowest completion rate in the state is Eastern Washington University. In 2015, one out of every five of EWU’s first-time, full-time students completed their degree in four years.
But the stats don’t represent the typical EWU student, said Provost Scott Gordon. Nearly half of all Eastern students are transfers from community colleges, not captured by the federal data. About 63 percent of those students finish four years after they start at EWU, he said.
Eastern has been working to boost graduation rates by redesigning math courses, providing peer-assisted study sessions, and creating a “learning commons” where students can go for help. And this marks the first full year for Eastern’s Center for Academic Advising and Retention, staffed with 20 advisers to help students develop a course schedule.
Private vs. public
Private schools typically have better graduation rates than public schools because they are more selective in their admissions and offer more counseling help.
But for Seattle University, the key to improving its graduation rate was a decision to stop chasing high-ranking prospects with merit scholarships.
The Jesuit college long had a practice of offering generous merit aid to lure top students. But in the classroom, professors were trying to teach high achievers and students who needed help at the same time, said Bob Duniway, the college’s associate vice president for institutional effectiveness. And the students who needed help were not graduating on time.
The solution: “Let’s worry a little less about competing for National Meritscholars, and instead focus on admitting more students who are a good fit for Seattle U, Duniway said.
Nearly two-thirds of students now graduate on time.
Seattle U also found many of its low-income students weren’t getting as much financial aid as they needed, and they were either borrowing more money or working long hours in part-time jobs to make up the difference. So the university started a program called the “challenge grant,” which identifies students who could use extra financial aid, Duniway said.
The program offers an extra $1,000 in aid to students who maintain a 3.0 GPA each quarter, up to three quarters, for a maximum additional $3,000. This last year, about 70 percent of students who got a challenge grant returned to campus after their freshman year; for low-income students at Seattle U, the average return rate is 50 to 60 percent, Duniway said.
Another Jesuit school, Gonzaga University, has seen one of the best graduation increases in the state. Gonzaga has focused on national research that shows four characteristics are associated with on-time graduation: living on campus, attending a college at least a three-hour drive from home, having a part-time job and being involved in extracurricular activities. The college has made living on campus for the first two years a requirement for most students.
The Washington college with the highest on-time grad rate is also its most selective: the private Whitman College in Walla Walla.
The small school begins planning for its new students with weekly emails throughout the summer, and it asks all students to fill out a detailed survey. Juli Dunn, the school’s associate dean of students, reads every one of them – this year, 426 questionnaires.
Whitman offers intensive counseling, and it has an early-alert system for students whose grades dip below a C minus. Dunn says students who struggle are rarely challenged by the academics; it’s often something else happening in their lives that affects their work.
“It’s pretty hard to fall through the cracks at Whitman,” Dunn said.