4-year Benchmark for Undergraduate Degree
is Archaic
By Autar Kaw

Commentary Tampa Tribune: Newspaper Version
November 30, 2007
Public institutions throughout the nation are under tremendous
pressure to improve their graduation rates because lingering and part-
time students take up space where freshmen could be placed while
taxpayers foot almost 2/3rds of the tuition bill.

Florida is no different, and the media and legislatures alike are asking
their public universities the rhetorical question – How many years
does it take to get a 4-year degree?  This question is especially asked
of University of South Florida (USF), where the 4-year graduation rate
is a low 21% as compared to a national average of 35%.  In an
editorial of November 21, 2007, Tampa Tribune claims that USF is
paying lip service to this issue.

I believe that, in the 21st century, the use of 4-year graduation rate is
an archaic benchmark.

Last spring when my daughter majoring in mass communications was
registering for her junior year classes at USF, she announced that she
loved her history class so much that she wanted to be a double major
in history.  Being a cheerleader for multidisciplinary education, I
encouraged this announcement enthusiastically.  However, on her
part this was a bad move for USF because she will now graduate in
four and a half years.

Last summer, a student asked me for advice, "Dr. Kaw, should I go for
a full-time internship at a local power company while taking one or
two evening classes."  Having attended an undergraduate institution
where two internships of three and six months were required and
having seen the tangible and experiential benefits of doing so, my
advice was a categorical yes.  Yet another bad move for USF as it will
delay his graduation another semester.

The national rate for 4-year graduation is 35% and the rate is
declining steadily because of the changing demographics of students.  
At USF, the reasons for low graduation rates are simple.  In addition
to students changing/adding majors and opting for co-operative
programs/internships, we have more students who need to work part-
time to go to school, half of our students are transfer students (USF
accepts the most number of transfer students of any public university
in the nation; transfer students do not get counted in the on-time
graduation statistics), more freshmen need remedial work, student
populations in urban areas are more mobile and graduate elsewhere,
and many are nontraditional career-changing and older students.  

USF 4-year 21% graduation rate is constantly compared to the 51%
graduation rates of University of Florida (UF).  

One of the two major indicators of 4-year graduation rates that work
in UF's favor is high family income of incoming freshmen.  In his book
The Future of Higher Education, Frank Newman reports that 41% of
undergraduates whose family income is in the top quartile get
degrees within five years, but only 6% from the bottom quartile
graduate in the same time period.  The American dream of higher
education is being pursued more and more by low income and older
students.

The other major indicator of 4-year graduation rate is high tuition
costs.  In Florida, we are inevitably leaning toward high tuition costs
as is evident from the differential tuition at UF, FSU and USF starting
spring 2008.

Differential tuition will result in higher graduation rates at USF as the
extra money generated is assumed to make sure that the classes
needed by our undergraduates are available when they need them.  
Coupled with the recently adopted online-tracking system of freshmen
progress toward graduation, weekly recitation sessions for bottleneck
courses such as mathematics, increased on-campus housing, and
national spotlight on the football team, USF will further succeed in
improving their graduation rates.  

Like any other aspiring public research institutions, UF, USF and FSU
are in a status war - whether it is to improve their US News and World
Report ranking or being invited to the American Association of
Universities (AAU).  Although no one will argue with the benchmarks
behind such status, the categorical recognition that the
undergraduate is the biggest consumer of learning is critical.  That is
why the legislature needs to make sure that the differential tuition is
used to hire faculty whose teaching assignment is mostly core
undergraduate courses.

It would be in the best interests of all to give USF till 2010 to show
improvement in the more pragmatic 6-year graduation rates.  

The public should also convince their legislatures to increase
simultaneously the undergraduate tuition rates, faculty dedicated
mostly to undergraduate teaching, and most importantly need-based
scholarships.  

PS.  The newspaper while asking the rhetorical question - "Guess,
who is in Grant's tomb?" may not have been the best analogy to use.  
"How many points does a 3-point field goal account for in a basketball
game?" may be more contemporary analogy - just ask ex University of
Georgia coach, Jim Harrick Sr.  He has 19 more rhetorical multiple-
choice questions in his
test bank.

Using the 4-year benchmark in fact started with the NCAA being
concerned about low graduation rates among athletes.

Autar Kaw is a parent of a USF undergraduate and is a mechanical
engineering professor at USF.  Any opinions or recommendations
expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily
reflect the views of the University of South Florida.

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