By Colleen Hayes and Sarah DiPeppe
In August 2003, more than 3,200 freshmen entered Virginia Commonwealth University, hoping they’d earn a college degree in four years or so.
By May 2009, only about 1,600 of them had graduated — a graduation rate of just 50 percent.
VCU’s graduation rate is among the lowest for public colleges and universities in Virginia, a computer analysis shows. And it’s lower than the rates for most of VCU’s official peer institutions.
VCU officials are aware of the problem. They are addressing it in the university’s recently revised strategic plan. School officials say they are taking steps to ensure that incoming students are better prepared academically. And the university hopes to provide better academic advising and more interaction between students and faculty members.
“There’s no one magical answer to it all,” said Kelli Parmley, an assistant vice provost at VCU.
Odds of graduating: 50-50
Every year, VCU and other institutions of higher education report their graduation data to the National Center for Education Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Education. The numbers go into a database called the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.
The database shows how many students at each school graduate within six years. At VCU, for example, of the 3,230 freshmen who enrolled in Fall 2003, 1,619 graduated by Spring 2009 — giving VCU a graduation rate of 50.1 percent.
An analysis of the IPEDS database showed that:
* VCU had the fourth-lowest graduation rate among the 15 public colleges and universities in Virginia. Eleven universities — including James Madison (81 percent), George Mason (64 percent) and Radford (57 percent) — had rates higher than VCU. Virginia’s public four-year schools had a combined graduation rate of 68 percent.
* VCU had a lower graduation rate than most of its official peer institutions — schools that Virginia officials say are comparable to VCU. VCU has 27 peers, and 18 of them had higher graduation rates than VCU. They included Florida State University (71 percent), Drexel University (66 percent) and West Virginia University (59 percent).
On the other hand, nine peers had lower graduation rates than VCU. They included the University of Louisville (48 percent) and the University of Alabama at Birmingham (40 percent). And VCU was only slightly below the 53 percent graduation rate for all public four-year colleges and universities in the United States, the data analysis showed.
Moreover, VCU’s graduation rate has been improving. Five years ago, it was 40 percent.
Reasons behind the rates
One of the driving factors behind VCU’s graduation rate is that many VCU students are stretched financially.
“We serve a lot of students who from an economic perspective don’t have a whole lot of advantages,” said Parmley, who heads VCU’s Center for Institutional Effectiveness.
“A lot of students, from survey work we have done, are first-generation students. Those are some features of students we attract that might make them less traditional in the sense that they’re motivated mind-set wise to complete in four years.”
The economic circumstances are reflected in VCU’s ethnic and racial diversity: 24 percent of the student body falls into the underrepresented minority category. African-American and Hispanic students often come from lower-income families, and they are more likely to drop out of college for financial reasons.
That trend is documented in “Completing College: Assessing Graduation Rates at Four-Year Institutions,” a study by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. “Asian-American and white students have the highest rate of four-year degree completion, where the rates for Latino/a, African-American and American-Indian are considerably lower,” the report says.
“One thing that’s very different about VCU from a Virginia Tech, from a George Mason, from a U.Va., is that we’re an urban university, which attracts a very different kind of student population, in a good way,” Parmley said.
While diversity enriches VCU’s environment, minority students are more likely to face financial problems that white students don’t.
VCU also attracts many students who are the first in their families to go to college. These first-generation degree seekers are less likely to graduate than students whose parents went to college, the UCLA researchers found.
They said that at public four-year colleges, 52 percent of the students from “college experienced” families graduated within six years. For first-generation college students, the number was 43 percent.
The high cost of college
Tuition and other financial hardships can be a roadblock on the path toward graduation. Matt Fottrell, 24, knows that first hand.
“I was three-fourths of the way into my last semester when I realized I had not been awarded financial aid,” Fottrell said. “I applied [for aid] right before spring semester, but I was never given a notice I didn’t receive any.”
Fottrell eventually completed his degree and now works full-time at Bottoms Up Pizza in Richmond. He is actively paying back VCU with hopes of eventually receiving his diploma –which he won’t receive until all money is paid back to VCU.
According to collegeresults.org, the price for in-state students living on campus at VCU is $21,869 per year. Many students are forced to take out loans or get a part-time job just to stay afloat.
“In most of my friend groups, a lot of kids that go to VCU are paying their own way through college, whereas a lot of students at more traditional universities are getting supported by their parents,” Fottrell said.
For Fottrell, who relied on financial aid, sometimes paying the bills became top priority.
“Attending a class seems a lot less important when you’re worried about making rent, he said. “I’ve skipped classes plenty to work.”
Many students feel the same pressure as Fottrell did. As a result, they may take fewer classes, take a semester off or drop out completely, which can lower VCU’s graduation rate.
Parmley says that is a big factor.
“For a lot of students, it’s ‘I’m going to fit in classes while I’m working or taking care of that.’ So a U.Va. student, from a stereotype perspective, is very different from a VCU student,” Parmley said.
VCU vs. U.Va.
Just 72 miles west of VCU, the University of Virginia has the highest graduation rate among public schools in Virginia with 93 percent. It also has far less diversity than VCU: 13 percent of U.Va.’s student body falls into the underrepresented minority category.
Also, students coming from high school with higher grade point averages and SAT scores traditionally fare better in college. U.Va.’s median SAT score is 1330, while VCU’s is 1080.
“You come to U.Va. to graduate,” said Gordon Stewart, associate dean in the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. He echoed Parmley in explaining that students’ home life greatly influences their academic success in college.
“Families need to do certain things to help students mature, stay on track and understand finances,” Stewart said. “There is an expectation of graduation that attaches with coming to U.Va. In a sense, people self-select to the outcome, and that can start at home.”
VCU officials know that VCU is not U.Va. VCU is more like the University of Cincinnati, one of VCU’s peer institutions. Cincinnati has a 46 percent graduation rate.
“Cincinnati is probably the closest to us in terms of being like us,” Parmley said.
Besides students’ financial circumstances, she said, another factor in graduation rates is a school’s research focus. VCU is a major research institution: Faculty members must not just teach but also do research. This means they may have less time to devote to students — and students may be less engaged and less likely to graduate.
“If George Mason had the research enterprise that we do, in terms of what our faculty is doing with research, I would say they might be comparable (to VCU),” Parmley said. “But because they don’t have that. Their faculty can be more devoted to the teaching mission.”
Looking ahead: Quest for Distinction
VCU is aware of its low graduation rate and is taking action. For example, student evaluations have pointed out the need for better academic advising. Many students were unsure of what classes to take or how to go about choosing a major.
“One survey on student satisfaction told us that advising was just not up to par,” Parmley said. “Either the adviser was not knowledgeable, it wasn’t clear what their major was, or just plain accessibility issues. So we know we have work to do with advising.”
Along with advising, VCU is increasing student engagement by promoting better use of technology, more group work and a greater focus on in-class writing.
Lastly, VCU is aiming to decrease the number of incoming freshmen and transfer students (VCU currently admits 2,000 transfers along with 3,600 freshmen) with hopes of fostering closer student-teacher relationships.
“We are bringing in too many freshmen for us to administratively handle,” Parmley said. “We were about growth for a long time, but now we really need to focus on bringing in the right number of students and keeping them here till graduation.”
Those initiatives are spelled out in VCU’s newly revised strategic plan, called “Quest for Distinction.” Indeed, the plan’s very first goal is to “recruit and retain talented and diverse students who will graduate at a higher rate and will contribute to a highly skilled workforce.”
While Quest might take time to show results, VCU officials believe the school’s graduation rate will improve.
“We know in higher education that your life is complicated,” Parmley said. “It’s not just any one thing that is going to explain why you stay or why you don’t, why you’re engaged or why you’re not — and it changes over time.”
Here are extracts of the data cited in this story.
About the data
The data for this report came from the National Center for Education Statistics, which is operated by the U.S. Department of Education.
Every year, the center surveys all colleges and universities and compiles a database called the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, or IPEDS.
We downloaded two tables from the IPEDS Data Center:
* One containing basic information about each school (such as where it is located, whether it is public or private, and the kinds of degrees it awards).
* The other containing the latest graduation statistics for each school. For example, this table showed the number of freshmen who entered in Fall 2003 and the number who graduated within six years (by 2009).
The data covered more than 7,300 institutions, including technical schools. We focused only on colleges and universities.
Using Microsoft Access, we “joined” the two tables, linking each institution with its graduation data. We then calculated each school’s graduation rate by dividing the number of graduates in 2009 by the number of incoming freshmen in 2003. (Federal officials usually base graduation rates on degree completion in six years, not four.)
We compared Virginia Commonwealth University’s graduation rate with the graduation rates of all other public universities in Virginia.
We also compared VCU with its 25 official peer institutions. These are schools that the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia has determined are similar to VCU.