College boasts high 4-year grad. rates

by Jenn Coffey | 5/10/02 5:00am

Sure, everyone knows a few "super seniors," but with 86.2 percents of students graduating in four years, Dartmouth has one of the highest four-year graduation rates in the nation.

Unlike many schools that have been seeing a growing number of students take five or even six years to graduate, Dartmouth's four-year graduation rate has largely remained steady over the last several years.

In 1998, 83.5 percent of students graduated in four years. That number increased to 89.3 percent the following year then decreased to 87.2 percent in 2000. Last year, 86.2 percent of the class of 2001 graduated on time.

"We're not seeing a trend to do either more or less than four," Registrar Polly Griffin said.

That trend is not the case at other universities, where the four-year graduation rate has fallen well below 50 percent.

The University of Minnesota, for example, has a four-year graduation rate of just 27.5 percent, and a five-year rate of 47.1 percent.

"Neither our four-year or our five-year graduation rates are where we think they should be," said Craig Swan, who works in the provosts office at Minnesota.

Swan attributed the low number to the fact that the University of Minnesota is a large public school where "a fair amount of people come to take just a course or two."

"We're a fairly traditional university," Griffin said, explaining why Dartmouth has such a high four-year graduation rate. Unlike large urban universities where a large number of students work and go to school part time, she said, "students come here to be students and then graduate and do something else."

At Davidson College, where the four-year graduation rate hovers around 85 percent, the size of the student body plays an important role in graduation rates. With fewer students, there are more opportunities to complete the classes needed to graduate in four years.

"I know of no instance, literally none, in which a student was delayed from graduation by his or her ability to get a course," Davidson Registrar Hansford Epes said.

At Dartmouth, "by far the majority of our classes have unlimited enrollment," Griffin said, "Its quite a helpful thing for students to not have to worry about ... being able to get in."

In addition to class size, academic majors play a role in determining the amount of time it takes a student to graduate.

At the University of Pennsylvania, where 83.3 percent of students graduate in four years, engineering majors are required to take more classes than most other students and often take an extra year to graduate.

Although an unusually high 26 percent of students pursue more than one degree, 90.2 percent of students graduate from Penn after five years.

At the University of Minnesota students used to be able to declare a major at any time during their academic career. In response to its low four-year graduation rate, however, the university now requires students to choose a major before the start of their junior year so that they "can't drift," Swan said.

Financial concerns can also provide an incentive for students to graduate.

At Pepperdine University the high cost of tuition and a "cutoff" on the number of years students can receive financial aid may be behind a recent 8.2 percent increase in the number of students graduating in four years. Their four-year rate jumped from 63.2 percent in 2000 to 71.4 percent in 2001.

Seeking similar results, Minnesota is "restructuring tuition," allowing students who take at least 13 extra credit hours without adding cost.

Large public schools like Minnesota often operate on a per credit hour pricing system because they have a high percentage of part time students for whom a flat rate tuition would not make sense.

While Minnesota recognizes that some students must attend school part time, administrators now contend that "the vast majority of students should be full time."

To that end, beginning next year, freshmen will be required to take 13 credit hours per semester. Such a plan has been effective at Davidson, where students "seldom take off a semester" and are required to carry a minimum course load.

"We generally don't allow students to come and go as they see fit," Epes said. "We almost actively discourage students from staying more than four years."

At Dartmouth, Provost Barry Scherr said he hasn't "really perceived any significant change" in the number of students wishing to stay at Dartmouth for five years.

"We attract a very strong student body all the way through," Scherr said, adding, "there's almost a peer pressure to keep up."

Strong class identity also helps to explain students' desires to graduate on time.

"We have quite a commitment to a class," Griffin said, citing "the concept of student life and what it means to participate in your class" as reasons for Dartmouth's high four-year graduation rate.

"I definitely felt a great sense of loss when the '01s graduated and I didn't," said Erin Gooch '01, who took a year off after her freshman year. Josef Jung '01, who will be graduating this year, expressed similar feelings.

"Socially, it's very weird," to stay for more than four years, Jung said. However, he added, "it forces you to branch out and meet new people."

Individual cases aside, Dartmouth's graduation rate remains "wonderfully high," Griffin said. As a result, Dartmouth does not plan to take any steps to increase the four-year graduation rate.