Tracking students and crunching numbers

By Shardae Smith

If you are a freshman at Columbia this fall in a first-year class, such as the First-Year Seminar, take a look around. There will likely be 17 students enrolled, the average class size at the college. Assuming the college’s current graduation rate of 40 percent, just seven or so members of the class will receive their diploma at Columbia in the allotted time.

That 40 percent is an improvement from last year’s graduation rate of 37 percent.

The way graduation rates are computed, 40 percent only applies to the class that started Columbia in 2004. The government now estimates it will take students six years to finish a once four-year degree.

The administration banks on doing better with this year’s incoming class, though it’s not hanging its head over the past.

“For this kind of school, I don’t think that’s really terrible,” said Elizabeth Herr, director of Enrollment Management Research. “I think the college has made huge strides because they started in ’94 with [a rate of] like 26 percent, so it’s increased steadily.”

Graduation rates only factor in first-time, full-time entering freshmen, so transfer and part-time students aren’t included in the rate at the end of six years.

The National Survey of Student Engagement polls students at hundreds of colleges and universities.

Columbia participates in the survey every other year. After it’s administered to the students, it generates information on how they feel about their time at Columbia in terms of engagement and activities, according to Bob Dale, executive director of Institutional Effectiveness for the college.

“A student graduating from Columbia is a combination of several different factors,” Dale said. “One is the engagement the student has with the college, their activities, and a lot of that depends on other factors, which to some extent are measured by the NSSE. Each student is different and what works well for one student may not work for another student. The bottom line with the survey though is it asks the students a series of questions. Based on the answers to those questions, we can measure to some extent how well we’re doing in the meeting of needs, and engaging with students. When we do better, I think the chances of having a better graduation rate are improved. If we do worse it’s an indication we need to do better.”

When compared with peer institutions, such as The Illinois Institute of Art, Columbia ranks lower. IIA had a six-year graduation rate of 41 percent for the entering class of 2003.

But both schools have similar “generous admissions” policies that can play a factor in both retention and graduation rates.

The School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s graduation rate for the 2003 entering class was 67 percent. Incoming freshmen at SAIC must have an ACT English score of 20 to be considered for admission, which is not required for admission at Columbia. SAIC also requires students to provide a portfolio with 10 to 15 examples of their work, according to its website.

“There’s a direct correlation between selectivity and graduation rates,” said Mark Kelly, vice president of Student Affairs. “If you look at the most selective colleges in the country, they have the highest graduation rates and you begin to see those graduation rates [decline] based on the level of selectivity. The 40 percent puts the college within the range for colleges with our approach to admissions, but it does not put us nearly where we want to be. We think over the next several years, with all of the new efforts and the improving retention rates, that we can go from a college that has an OK rate, to a college [where] we can celebrate that we are ensuring success beyond what our rate should be based on our selectivity.”

There are several factors Columbia staff contribute to the college’s current graduation rate, say one being students transferring to other institutions after their first year.

The biggest decline in retention is among first and second-year students, with the first-year student retention rate being 66 percent, according to Herr.

“There are students who are really excited about Columbia,” said Brian Marth, director of College Advising. “But they get to the college and find out it wasn’t what they expected in terms of the classes [being] too hard or they had a change of heart and decided not to study the arts, and transferred to a different institution.”

Marth said some students end up realizing Columbia may not be the right fit for them. This can be a problem for some at an arts and media college because students do not have many options if they decide to change their major, whereas they may at a traditional liberal arts school.

“I’ve talked to many students where they want [a traditional college] experience with a football team and homecoming,” Marth said. “I think if students feel that way, then for some it’s a good move to go to another institution. You have to feel like the institution is where you want be.”

Vice President for Academic Affairs Louise Love said a new government program will soon allow institutions to know if someone leaves a certain school and graduates from somewhere else. She said tracking couldn’t be done in the past, but soon the helpful information will be available.

The college has implemented a project called the Integrated First-Year Experience Initiative in order to increase student success and improve retention, which will also improve

graduation rates.

Seven task forces have been formed to confront needs the administration feels must be addressed to overcome Columbia’s enrollment challenges. Identifying Incoming At-Risk Students, Supporting Low-Achieving Students and Supporting High Achieving Students are three of the task forces.

“The honors program responds to some concerns that some students expressed of not receiving the academic challenge they were seeking,” Kelly said. “The college has a new advising initiative where college advisors are focusing on new students entering the college and faculty advisors will support our continuing students. There are also changes in the curriculum to help students understand what’s required and to offer them more flexibility in their choices. In the end, it’s not about retention rates; it’s about focusing on success, which results in improved retention rates.”

Due to problems with the current economy, some think the expense of college may also play a role in whether students graduate.

While Columbia’s 2009 tuition rate was approximately $19,000, SAIC’s 2009 tuition was $34,600 and the Illinois Institute of Art came in at $21,372, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“We realize in today’s economy [kids wonder], ‘How am I going to pay for school?’ But there is a category of students who don’t have a conversation with a faculty member or advisor to figure out if there is something that they can do,” Marth said. “Some of these students don’t have a conversation with Student Financial Services and we just lose them.”

Graduation rates correlate directly with retention rates, which the administration feels is a reflection of student engagement, according to faculty interviewed.

“There’s an expectation that students are looking to be engaged,” Marth said. “That students are getting out and taking advantage of those resources, so although the invitation is out there, a student needs to accept that invitation. If they don’t take advantage of it, it’s a lot easier to leave when you don’t have anyone you’re connected to.”