Focusing on grad rates

USF administrators agree that the percentage of students who graduate from the school within six years reflects the status and success of a university.

But as the University works to become a member of the American Association of Universities – an elite group of the nation’s top colleges and universities – administrators are confronted with the fact that USF’s 47 percent graduation rate lags far behind that of the lowest AAU institution, which boasts a rate of 58 percent.

Comparatively low graduation rates, however, might not bar USF from joining the AAU, as it’s unclear how big a role these rates play in admission even though AAU schools have an average graduation rate of 80 percent.

“To my knowledge, one of their criteria is not graduation rates,” USF Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies Glen Besterfield said. “But in my opinion, if you look at the AAU schools, whether it is the privates or the publics, they are not going to even consider you to be a member of the AAU until they view you as a great undergraduate institution.”

The AAU lists undergraduate education as a Phase II indicator in a two-phase assessment and evaluation process, but does not expressly mention graduation rates.

“The committee will assess the institution’s undergraduate programs to determine that the institution is meeting its commitment to undergraduate education,” AAU assessment criteria states. “Recognizing that differing institutional missions among research universities dictate different ways of providing undergraduate education, the committee will be flexible in this assessment. A number of measures have been suggested, including some that focus on input and others that look primarily at output variables. These are at this time imperfect, but may provide some guidance to the committee in making its judgments on this topic.”

Because the University is unsure of what the AAU seeks in an undergraduate program, USF is focusing on bolstering its graduation rates. The University plans to do this by increasing the number of students who start at USF as freshmen and continue to their sophomore year.

“Our philosophy is that when you fall in love with something, it is hard to leave it,” Besterfield said. “When you fall in love with a state or a part of the country or a city or a (member of the opposite sex,) it is hard to walk away and leave that. We want these kids that are coming in to fall in love with their future alma mater. We want them to fall in love with being a Bull and what it means to be a Bull.”

A retooled orientation program is one way the University has tried to ease incoming students’ transition from high school to college.

“It’s a lot of little things,” Besterfield said. “There is no one thing that you can isolate. But freshman orientation is probably the biggest change. We went from what was a less than adequate orientation to a world-class orientation.”

What was once a six-hour tour has grown into a two-day mandatory overnight introduction to USF. Besterfield said the revamped orientation – which started in summer 2006 – was aimed at freshman retention.

“It has a lot to do with orientation and the transition to college,” Besterfield said. “We stress academic excellence the first three weeks of the semester. We stress so many things about academics during orientation and the transition between high school and college that we really think it has made a difference. And once again, if they get off to a good start, they are going to make it.”

Associate Vice President of Admissions Leellen Brigman agreed that there is a direct correlation between freshman retention and six-year graduation rates.

“There is some data, nationally, that says for every 1 percent increase you see in freshman retention rate, you should expect a 2 percent increase in graduation rate,” Brigman said.

Along with resources focused on freshmen, the admissions criteria have been adjusted and the University is home to a higher caliber of student. The average incoming SAT scores and GPAs are on the rise, Besterfield said.

“We still admit students based on the combination of SAT scores and high school GPA. We have always done that,” Besterfield said. “Now, what has happened as we have become better, more of a national university maybe, we are having more students apply. We get a better group of students that want to come to this University. Therefore, you can become a little more selective – hence the SAT and GPA scores go up.”

What it all means in terms of the AAU and the Strategic Plan

The steps USF is taking to increase graduation and freshmen retention rates and garner the AAU’s attention are in keeping with its 2007-2012 strategic plan, in which it envisions being “positioned for membership” by 2012.

USF retains 81 percent of its freshman and hopes to retain 90 percent by 2012.

Along with the retention rate, the graduation rate goal is set at 63 percent. Although 63 percent would still be low among AAU members, it would not be the lowest. The State University of New York at Buffalo has the lowest graduation rate at 58 percent.

“Going to 65 percent is probably not possible for this institution,” Besterfield said. “When you look at the AAU you see all the land-grant universities that are steeped in hundreds of years of tradition, some of them. We are a metropolitan, somewhat commuter-based institution. Plus, if you just look at the demographic of the students that attend some of those universities, the income levels are significantly higher.”

Both Besterfield and Brigman cited geographical location, tradition and the socioeconomic makeup of USF’s population as why six-year graduation rates are lower at USF than elsewhere.

“We have a more economically diverse group of students,” Brigman said. “We also have a large group of students that drop down to lower course loads because they are working. There are so many opportunities in a metropolitan area to be employed while going to school.”

Regardless of the reasons behind graduation rates, it remains unclear how they will factor into AAU admission.

“I cannot tell you how graduation rates would or would not figure into the membership committee’s decision,” Ann Speicher, AAU associate vice president of external affairs, said. “But I think you can count on the things that are listed in the requirements as being things that they focus on.”

Speicher also encouraged USF’s efforts to make itself attractive to the AAU.

“I have read several articles that the University of South Florida is very interested in being considered for membership, and I know there are other institutions also interested. I think people would say ‘more power to them.’ I mean, our country is founded on a certain level of competition among institutions,” Speicher said.

For now, Besterfield believes that every increase in graduation and freshmen retention rates counts, and that as USF continues to grow, alumni will benefit from the work being put into boosting the rates.

“As we get more prestigious, and if we ever can get into the AAU – which we will one day – that will mean so much more to everyone who has ever attended this University,” Besterfield said. “They will become alumni of a AAU institution. Everything that we are doing is benefiting the current students, the future students and the past students.”