Breaking away

Nevada is trying to get out of its college graduation slump

Commencement: It’s not really this bad at UNR, but there are plenty of <i>symbolic</i> empty chairs at Nevada college graduations.

Commencement: It’s not really this bad at UNR, but there are plenty of symbolic empty chairs at Nevada college graduations.

RN&amp;R file photo

In Nevada, of every hundred students who start the 9th grade, 51 graduate from high school.

Of those 51, five go to a community college, three become sophomores, and two graduate (though not on time after two years).

Also from those 51, another 22 enter a four-year institution, 15 become sophomores, and two graduate on time after four years.

That original 100 9th grade students is down to four college grads.

Failure to graduate from a four-year institution in four years is so common now, in fact, that the most commonly used figures for graduation rates in four-year institutions are six-year results.

Seventy-five percent of entering University of Nevada, Reno students are still in college after the first year. But only 15 percent graduate after four years and 48 percent graduate after six years.

At the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, the figures are 76, 12 and 41.

The community colleges are not easily comparable to those of the university campuses, but their records are similar. And community college completion often occurs after three years instead of two.

According to 2008 figures, Nevada was next to last in its overall college graduation rate—36.6 percent. Only Alaska (22.1 percent) was lower, and some states famous for their stinginess with education, like Louisiana, ranked higher than Nevada.

The state’s higher education system is working to get the numbers up.

“We need to produce more graduates in Nevada and in the entire country,” said Nevada higher education chancellor Dan Klaich. “There is a fairly widespread consensus that we are not doing a good enough job helping students get through the pipelines. If there are artificial barriers, we need to get rid of them. If there are old procedures that no longer serve a purpose but do hamper students, that needs to change.”

One effort, a retention program, was begun after consulting with the Lumina Foundation in Indiana. Nevada students who are a year away from graduation are contacted personally and interviewed. If they are having problems, they may be offered help. This program is system wide, so the workers needed to do the monitoring cost money. Lumina provided some funding.

Now Nevada is working with another organization—Complete College America, based in Washington, D.C. The state does not need to pay dues as one of 24 states working with CCA. In fact, it paid the way for seven Nevada college officials to go to a conference in Denver where they swapped ideas with counterparts from other states.

But there are other problems associated with the CCA affiliation. The state agreed as part of its working arrangement with the group not to release percentage goals, only raw number goals. When the RN&R requested the percentage goal for the coming year, it was refused.

Sharon Wurm, Nevada’s liaison to CCA, said the goal is to increase the number of graduates by 1,064 each year for 10 years. But she said that includes different “cohorts”—full time students as opposed to part time students, for example—and to provide a single percentage goal would be misleading by mixing them together. But when percentage goals by cohort were requested, that too was refused. Wurm also said providing percentage figures would result in different percentage goals each year, which she apparently considers objectionable.

“When we are talking about goals, we don’t want to talk about a different percentage each year. … We’re not looking at increasing our rates, we’re looking at increasing the number of our graduates.”

She said the system is not withholding the information. “We’re not withholding it, we’re just not calculating it,” she said.

The system expects about 12,000 students to graduate in this academic year. An increase of 1,064 in the next academic year would be an 8.86 percent increase. The percentage goal for subsequent years would then be known only when the number of each year’s graduates is known. The 1,064 figure would represent a different percent each year depending on the number of graduates in the previous year. Without the release of those percentages, members of the public would have to track down figures themselves to learn the percentage goal.

When it came to another goal, Wurm did provide a percentage—“We’re aiming at 60 percent of our workforce having college degrees.”

Asked if the public was not entitled to the percentages instead of raw numbers in order to assess progress, Wurm said, “If you start at 1,000 degrees and then you add 1,064, you would have a percentage, but then that would change the next year.” She did not explain why that was undesirable except to say, “We’re not setting our goals that way. … I’ll give you the goals as we’ve defined them.”

Klaich said he would have no objection to providing whatever percentage the 1,064 represents each year.

How to do it

One proposal the Nevada system is looking at is limiting the number of credits for graduation, which would both ease graduation and deal with chronic complaints about more and more credit obligations being piled onto degree requirements over the years, a problem known as “degree creep.” Some education officials believe it contributes to students not graduating on time at the four-year mark.

Is there a danger that this kind of change will be perceived as making it easier on students in order to push the graduation rate up rather than for sound educational reasons?

“No, I don’t think so,” said Klaich. “I think that curriculum, like everything else in education, is a compact between the parties, and it’s not unreasonable to ask faculty to structure credits in a way that serves the students. We don’t have an interest in keeping people in the system just to keep people in school.”

He said the use of this technique would not apply to degrees such as engineering that involve professional accreditation.

Other possible steps the higher education could take include more dual enrollment, accelerated programs, greater partnership with elementary and secondary schools in Nevada, revising remedial education, and performance funding that will “encourage colleges to move their students through to graduation rather than just enrolling them,” as Klaich describes it.

Aren’t these things the state could think of and do on its own, without groups like Lumina and CCA?

“I’ll tell you, when I was back in Denver one of the speakers plugged what he called CASE—copy and steal everything,” Klaich said. “Bring together states and share ideas on how they are reforming their curriculum. We’re getting the best of thinking throughout the United States.”

Implementing some of these steps are, like so many needs in the state, costly. This always brings up Nevada’s difficult fiscal straits. Is this the best time to be launching retention initiatives?

“I think the idea is not to do anything radically new and different, to just reinforce what we’re already doing,” Wurm said. She added that she expects existing university employees to add any retention duties and perform them “in the course of their day-to-day jobs.”