By Nicole Freeling
Despite budgetary constraints brought on by years of declining state funding, the University of California continues to outpace many of its peer institutions on critical measures of student success.
UC has made significant improvements on overall graduation rates in the last few years, and both freshmen and transfers are graduating more quickly than in the past.
"This is one of the untold stories," said UC provost Aimée Dorr. "Graduation rates for undergraduates have risen dramatically over the past 20 years, and it is taking less time than ever for them to complete their degrees."
The trends were outlined in a report presented May 15 to the UC Board of Regents.
UC improved its student outcomes even while serving the needs of an economically diverse student population and juggling an increasing number of students per faculty member.
Graduation rates have increased across all undergraduate campuses, according to the report. More than 80 percent of students who enter UC as freshmen graduate within six years, a time frame widely considered as the de-facto measure of college completion.
UC's graduation rates exceed the average for flagship public research universities and approach those of the country's leading private institutions. UC campuses account for six of the top 10 public research universities with the highest graduation rates.
UC also has seen big improvements in how long students take to complete their studies. The number of freshmen completing their degree in four years has almost doubled, from 37 percent in 1997 to 60 percent today. Of those students who don't earn a degree in four years, most are able to complete their studies with just one additional academic term.
A beacon for opportunity and access
These outcomes are even more remarkable given that UC — unlike many elite research universities — enrolls large numbers of low-income and first-generation students, who typically take longer to graduate than their peers.
The ability of America's system of higher learning to serve low-income students recently has become an issue of widespread concern. Nationally, these students are less likely to enroll in college and more likely to drop out or fail to complete their studies.
UC stands in noteworthy counterpoint to this trend, according to figures Dorr presented to the regents.
More than 40 percent of UC undergraduates receive Pell Grants, federal financial aid given to low-income families - almost twice the percentage at other highly selective public universities, and more than double that at elite private institutions.
"These students are not only getting accepted to and enrolling at UC campuses. They are succeeding here," Dorr said.
While Pell students at UC take a bit longer to complete their studies than do their peers whose families do not qualify for Pell grants, the majority — 78 percent — graduate in six years. "There is still a gap between the graduation rates for UC's Pell and non-Pell undergraduates, but it's not a very big gap," Dorr said. "It's a much narrower gap than exists at other elite public universities and is quite similar to that at elite private institutions."
Preserving academic excellence
The university has been able to maintain these outcomes in the face of painful budget cuts, in part by asking more of its faculty.
The average number of classes taught by faculty has increased steadily over the last 20 years. So has the average number of student credit hours per faculty member — a measure administrators say better accounts for the increased instructional and advisory activity required to support a growing number of students per faculty member.
"UC faculty have shouldered an increasing workload — and have done so while maintaining their commitments to cutting-edge research and public service that bring innumerable benefits to the state and its residents," Dorr said.
UC does have room to improve, particularly in the number of undergraduates who complete their studies in four years and in boosting graduation rates at individual UC campuses.
Dorr and others, discussing the report during the regents meeting, noted that there are numerous factors that influence how long it takes students to complete their studies. Some of these, such as difficulty getting into required courses or overly complex major requirements, may be well within the university's power to address. Others, such as financial pressures that require students to balance their studies with jobs, may not.
"To ask someone working half the week at another job to graduate in four years is perhaps too high a burden," said UC Regents Chair Sherry Lansing.
Regent Eddie Island cautioned against putting too great an emphasis on how long it takes students to graduate, saying that the drive to have students graduate more quickly eventually could translate into pressure to admit fewer low-income students.
"UC's strength is its willingness to enroll and see through to graduation so many of our young people from low-income, first-generation families in California. ...We need to stay focused on this mission."