Arkansas colleges seek ambitious improvement to graduation rates

State ranks 45th in nation in attainment

Arkansas college leaders are working to improve graduation rates that lag behind the nation's average, Aziza Musa reports for Arkansas Online.

Aiming for 60% attainment

In the past five years, the state's four-year graduation rate has consistently increased, jumping from 23.1% of first-time students who enrolled in 2007 to 27.6% of students who enrolled in fall 2011. But the 10-year and six-year graduation rates have remained mostly steady during that time period.

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Arkansas ranks 45th in the country in attainment, according to both the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and the Lumina Foundation's annual "A Stronger Nation" report. State higher education officials say they want a 60% attainment rate by 2025.

"We grow as a state, and as we grow as a state, there are more jobs that are available and the more need for education, and it's just a cycle that builds on itself," says Brett Powell, state Higher Education Department director.

Two universities trying new strategies

At Arkansas Tech University, 42% of students graduate within six years. While that's above the state average, school officials continue to look for ways to improve. The school increased first-year retention efforts: now it has mandatory orientation for incoming freshmen, faculty mentors for incoming students, and instruction-oriented advising. Administrators also emphasize student internships and externships, encourage instructors to mix up classroom approaches, and are considering adding a one-stop "Student Success Center."

At the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, leaders created a group focused on "high-touch" retention efforts, such as calling students before enrollment to help them choose classes, requiring students to meet with advisers each semester, compacting class registration deadlines, and creating a scholarship incentive for students who complete 90 credit hours. The school also monitors courses with high incidences of students withdrawing or earning D's or F's. If one student enrolls in multiple of those "DFW" courses in one semester, an adviser will flag that and suggest the student take something else instead. 

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At other schools in the state, instructors give "kudos" to well-performing students. Officials have also redesigned freshman year and revamped remedial courses (Musa, Arkansas Online, 5/2). 

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