Why finish in four?

In the first of a series following up on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s recent article featuring Indiana State, we explore why it’s important — for both students and State — to earn their degrees on time.

As a high school student in Fort Wayne, Ind., Michael Platt struggled with motivation and time management.

But all that changed when he got to Indiana State three years ago. He found a robust support network made up of people who wanted to see him succeed, and he began to understand that the longer it took him to finish his degree, the more money he’d have to spend.

“I was paying for it now — that was a big change,” said Platt, who is the first person in his immediate family to attend a four-year university. “It’s a lot of money to spend if you’re not serious about it. And then, everybody at ISU seemed more willing to help and they actually showed it.”

Now, Platt is on track to graduate in the spring of 2018, four years after he arrived in Terre Haute. He’s applying to graduate programs in higher education and student affairs so that he can help other students make the transition from high school to college.

“Going to college was the best decision that I’ve ever made,” Platt said. “(I want to help) first-year students understand that it really is the best decision that they will ever make and that it is a big investment in their future.”

Platt is part of a growing trend at State. Despite many academic and financial challenges, more and more Sycamores are finishing their degree in four years. As a result, the university’s four-year graduation rate is at its highest level since the school began keeping track in 1998.

For students, starting and finishing college in four years means less student loan debt, the chance to start earning money sooner and earlier access to graduate school.

For State, the four-year graduation rate is an important metric in the state’s performance-based funding model — the more State improves its four-year graduation rate, the more money the university receives.

President Dan Bradley

“It’s important to us as an institution from a financial point of view to graduate students in four years just because it’s part of the performance funding metrics,” said President Dan Bradley, who is retiring in January after nine years at the helm of Indiana State. “It’s also important for us as we look at what’s good for our students. Generally, the goal is to get on to graduate school or to get a job after you complete. If you take longer to get your bachelor’s degree, you’re not going to be able to go forward with those goals.”

State is so focused on students completing their bachelor’s degrees on time that the university created the Sycamore Graduation Guarantee. If a student who signs up for the program can’t cross the commencement stage in four years, the remainder of his or her classes are free.

The university’s focus on improving its four-year graduation rate has paid off. After years of static numbers, State has seen its four-year graduation rate increase from 19 percent in the fall of 2014 to 26 percent in the fall of 2016. That number is expected to increase again during the next measurement period this fall.

Budget priorities

Shortly after arriving at State in 2008, Bradley launched a strategic planning process that made improving the university’s four-year graduation rate a top priority.

The new emphasis on State’s four-year graduation rate came during a national conversation about college completion.

Josh Powers

“Historically, higher education has always been about enrollment — ‘We need to get students to college,’” said Josh Powers, associate vice president for academic affairs. “Now, we’ve moved beyond just a conversation about access to a conversation about both access and completion.”

As the focus shifted to completion across the country, it also shifted in Indiana. The state first created its performance-based funding model for higher education in 2003 and has updated that model with new metrics — including one that measures on-time degree completion — in the years since.

A quick glance at Indiana’s formula, which is used to allocate a proportion of state money to Indiana institutions based on their performance in certain categories, reveals that degree completion is a top priority for state officials and lawmakers — all six of the formula’s variables are connected to degree completion in some way.

All told, the four-year graduation rate — also known as the on-time graduation rate metric — accounts for 30 percent of the performance-based funding pool, with overall degree completion making up the next largest piece at 40 percent.

Other metrics, such as at-risk degree completion, high-impact degree completion, student persistence and remediation success, make up the rest of the performance-based funding pool.

The on-time graduation metric has the highest per-unit value of any variable, meaning that State can see the largest increase in its performance-based funding allocation by improving that number.

Diann McKee

“The state of Indiana has placed a value on (the four-year graduation rate),” said Diann McKee, the university’s treasurer and senior vice president of finance and administration. “The more quickly a student can complete a four-year degree, the lower the cost. And they’re going to have a credential that is marketable and will have a lifetime impact on their earning power.”

Because of a lag in the measurement period for the performance-based funding metrics, State’s impressive increase in its four-year graduation rate hasn’t yet been reflected in its state funding allocation. For fiscal year 2017-2018, the university received $87,606 in connection with its four-year graduation rate. For 2018-19, the allocation will be $109,806.

But when the measurement window catches up, and as State continues its many persistence and graduation-rate initiatives, the university’s share of the performance-based funding pool is likely to increase in the coming years.

“We’re doing everything we can to make sure students are making progress toward their degree attainment goals within a four-year period,” McKee said.

Beyond state funding, it’s in the university’s best interest to keep students from dropping out for another reason: The familiar business adage, that it’s cheaper to keep an existing customer than to find a new one, rings true on college campuses, too.

“We invest a lot in students before they even get here to enroll for their first semester,” McKee said. “We’re spending money to recruit them and if they enroll and only stay semester or two, now we have to recruit the same size of class, plus you need to make up what you’ve lost in terms of retention.”

‘Double-edged sword’

Students also have a financial incentive to finish college in four years. In the broadest sense, each additional semester a student spends at State means more tuition, more fees and more books.

For in-state students, an additional year of classes can add an extra $8,716 in tuition, $1,200 in books and supplies and $2,200 in other expenses to the cost of a degree at State. But beyond that, there are lost wages and the potential to tack on more student loan debt. For some students, it means delaying their graduate studies.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” said Roberta Allen, director of the Center for Student Success. “It’s a loss of income and then income going out for tuition and so forth.”

Additionally, though the Pell Grant is available for up to 12 semesters (six years), many other forms of financial aid are only available for eight semesters. Students who need extra time risk not being able to afford to finish their degree.

Students who receive scholarships through the 21st Century Scholars Program, for example, are eligible for up to four years of funding. They must complete 30 credit hours each year they are enrolled in college to receive funding, a requirement that puts them on track to graduate in four years.

“The 21st Century Scholars Program is a total blessing to our students in Indiana, and it’s fairly unusual across the country, but it’s only for four years,” said Powers. “You basically need to hit 30, 60, 90 and 120 credit hours per year to maintain that aid. And the same is true for other forms of state aid. More and more aid is time-bounded. You’ve got four years to do it.”

Read the article by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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