University of Utah graduation rates do not measure up against comparable institutions, undermining the state's competitiveness and depressing tax revenues, according to a legislative audit released Tuesday.
Key reasons for the U.'s 58 percent six-year graduation rate are a lack of college readiness among incoming freshmen, particularly in math and science, and the fact that many students dawdle through college, earning credits that don't advance them toward graduation, auditors say.
In testimony before the Legislative Audit Subcommittee, auditors urged measures to speed students to the finish line because the longer they spend in school, the less chance they have of completing a degree. They also encouraged schools to bump up admissions standards, which the U. has already been doing in recent years.
"Graduation rates are an important consideration if Utah is going to produce the number of people with bachelor's degrees necessary to meet 2018 job needs," said auditor Janice Coleman. "Also, a 5 percent increase in the bachelor's-degree-holding population might increase tax revenue by as much as $24.5 million a year."
Higher education officials agreed with most of the auditors' findings and recommendations, including boosting high school course and GPA requirements and charging higher tuition for students who earn excess credits.
The U.'s graduation rate "doesn't look right for a Pac-12 school," said David Pershing, the U.'s senior vice president for academic affairs. "This is something that is on our minds. It is certainly something we've got to work on."
But the solutions won't be easy, he said. The factors underlying poor graduation rates are complex and often beyond universities' control. For example, Pershing said three-fourths of U. students work at least 30 hours a week, usually off campus.
"It's inevitable that this will impact graduation speed. … We offer as many jobs as we can on campus. If you work on campus, you don't spend as much time driving somewhere and you tend to end up with a mentor," Pershing said. "We have many more women who drop out than would be typical of a major research school, usually to have families."
But the most vexing issue is a widespread lack of college preparation, now afflicting three-fourths of students graduating from Utah high schools. Too many seniors are exercising "work release options" rather than taking serious courses, according to William Sederburg, commissioner of higher education.
"That is a real challenge for all our institutions," Sederburg said. "Over 50 percent of our students enroll in some form of remedial education and yet we know that remedial education throughout the country is a dismal failure."
Auditors suggested borderline students hoping to attend the U. be diverted to open-enrollment schools such as Salt Lake Community College until they are college ready. But that did not sit well with committee co-chair Sen. Michael Waddoups, whose Taylorsville district includes SLCC's main campus.
"Those schools are already bursting at the seams and have less space than our flagship schools," Waddoups said. "This is a real conundrum to me."
While the U.'s graduation rate is the highest in the state's public university system, policy makers clearly expect much more from the flagship institution. The private Brigham Young University, Utah's most selective school, has a graduation rate of 77 percent, even though a big share of its students go on church missions and marry young, experiences that work against timely graduation.
Utah State University's 55 percent graduation compares well with similar institutions and actually exceeds those of schools that have more rigorous admissions standards. Southern Utah University and Weber State University both have room for improvement at 43 percent, but again those rates are in line with similar schools, according to Coleman.
Concern that U. students were taking excess credit hours prompted Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George,and Rep. Michael Morley, R-Spanish Fork, who co-chair the Higher Education Appropriation Subcommittee, to ask for the audit. This coming session, Urquhart intends to pursue a reform agenda to increase the productivity of Utah's campuses.
Already on the books is a policy that allows schools to charge more tuition of students who have amassed excess credits, but it is almost never enforced. Auditors urged the Board of Regents to refine the policy to make enforcement more practical. Such surcharges could net $840,000 to $13.5 million a year, auditors estimated.
"The ultimate goal of these policies is not necessarily to bring in revenue, but to affect student behavior," auditors wrote.
While acknowledging some students take way too many classes, officials have been loath to impose financial barriers to higher education. Sederburg noted that nearly a quarter of Utah adults start college but don't finish.
"We don't want to penalize them if they want to come back and get a degree, and they're already at 125 credits," he told lawmakers. He noted that students typically change majors four times before graduating.
Comparing graduation rates
Legislative auditors compared the U.'s six-year graduation rate with other schools in four groups. In each, the U.'s 58 percent rate ranked in the bottom half, if not near the floor. The four groups were Pac-12 schools; the U.'s official list of peer institutions; "very competitive" public research universities; and research-intensive public universities. The U. is 10th in the Pac-12. Among the 22 schools with "very competitive" admission standards, the group auditors believe offers the best comparison, the U. ranked 20th. Here's a sampling of others on that "very competitive" list:
1. Penn State • 85 percent
6. UC Santa Cruz • 73 percent
12. Colorado • 67 percent (No. 8 in the Pac-12)
19. Louisiana State • 59 percent
22. University of Hawaii • 48 percent
Read the full audit •bit.ly/sMBdOr