Increasing four-year graduation rates will help students avoid the “Fifth Year” title

graduation1813Students have recently undergone scrutiny after a surprising amount of undergraduates have taken six years to graduate. Gov. Jerry Brown spoke out May 15 regarding University of California graduation rates, which the California governor clearly believes are subpar. Gov. Brown is right about change being needed within the UC system, seeing as classes become more difficult to obtain every year and tuition is always on the rise. Increasing the number of students who do graduate on time is a good idea. The University of California, Riverside has seen a mere 42 percent of students graduate within four years, so it is time to find a solution.

Gov. Brown promised the UC system would receive more funding if it can pull off a 10 percent increase in students who graduate within four years by the year 2017, and UCR could greatly benefit from an increase in funding. Yet the likelihood of seeing such an outcome at this moment in time is uncertain.

There are many reasons why students stick around for more than four years — a timeframe that Gov. Brown says is “the norm” even though only a little more than half of UC students admitted as freshmen graduate four years later. For one, classes have become increasingly difficult to enroll in. Too often students are waitlisted and seats in essential classes quickly become full. One explanation is that the UC has had to make significant cutbacks due to a lack of education funding. Another is the damnable unit cap that frustrates most of the student body.

The 16-unit enrollment cap is dreaded because not all classes are four units. This ultimately puts a strain on class scheduling and forces students to sacrifice core classes. The result is students waiting around to take much-needed courses.

Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Steven Brint and I discussed multiple factors that play into longer graduation times. Brint expressed concern for the literal lack of space in which to offer courses, saying that offering more lecture classes would be difficult due to having limited room on campus. He also said that students are not provided enough opportunities to reach the necessary 15 units a quarter. Also, there are problems that come from transitional matters as a result of students having difficulties within the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

I asked the Vice Provost if a 52 percent four-year graduation rate, which would meet Jerry Brown’s standards, is a realistic goal. He did not hesitate to say that it is reachable.

Students obtaining needed classes is one of the major issues involved in graduation rates. If a student does not receive a needed class on time, he or she will immediately see scheduling problems. This also comes with the dilemma of acquiring the proper prerequisites for other courses. The proper resources need to be allocated for students so they do not have to combat these issues.

In regards to the unit cap, Brint said that it was imposed because of budget cuts and increased enrollment, but did admit that it is “time to reevaluate that.” The vice provost said that he had also been collaborating with Jacob Apkarian and Sarah Yoshikawa on an enrollment model that would predict course demand. Brint’s idea will be beneficial for students, as it would allow departments to determine how many seats are needed for various courses and would help decongest a system where every student is looking to enroll in at least 15 units a quarter.

An increase in class size and more course availability is also necessary. There is a concern about the lack of space on campus, but Brint brought up the fact that there is an inventory of classrooms that cannot seat more than 30 students. But a proper distribution of enrolled students is an easy fix to the impasse.

One of the more interesting dilemmas was the problem within the STEM fields where students are apparently unprepared to handle strenuous math courses. As a result, undergraduates who attempt these majors and experience a tougher time than expected are forced to focus on another subject, holding students back.

Preparation is the biggest concern, so community outreach is a definite possibility. High school seniors intending to pursue a scientific or math-oriented subject should be made aware of the expectations of the UC system, and of universities in general. Brint says that he has given funding to the Department of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, which has used it to expand first-year learning communities.

Students need to take advantage of campus resources, specifically opportunities to receive tutoring and better advising. There is an academic resource center for a reason. It is the school’s responsibility to force struggling students to get help or smoothly transition them into a better-fitting major. This would not only target the STEM fields, but make a point that better grades and more outreach would create higher graduation rates.

When commenting on the current status of graduation rates, the vice provost said that UC Riverside sees above-average graduation rates, but is not satisfied with the current percentage who do graduate in four years. This is no surprise since Gov. Brown is correct in believing that the UC system could see more students graduating within four years.

In order to make this goal come to fruition UCR needs to simply cater to the student body. More classes, proper distribution, increase in size and the hiring of more TAs (to open up more discussion sections) are all parts of the solution. Making financial aid available to those who are taking fewer units is also a viable option. For those who have a hard time affording college and have to balance work and school, this would allow them to continue with school and avoid delays.

There are many solutions that can be pursued in response to Gov. Brown’s declaration about the urgency of students graduating on time. The UC system just needs to get organized and make sure that students are guided in the right direction.

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