UL System Presidents Commit to Raising Graduation Rates above National Levels

Community colleges and tougher admission standards mean a new role for the System’s eight universities

BATON ROUGE, La. — Students in the University of Louisiana System will graduate at a greater rate than the national average by 2012, according to a new plan introduced Thursday by presidents of the system’s eight universities.

UL Lafayette President Ray Authement led other presidents in a discussion of new strategies that will ensure that Universities meet their goal on or before their target date. Presidents presented their plan to the UL System Board of Supervisors, student government leaders, faculty, state officials and others.

"This is a lofty goal, but as we shift from open-admissions institutions to those with high expectations and higher standards, I feel comfortable that we can achieve it. Southeastern faculty and staff have already begun to see the impact of the new standards in improved student retention," Southeastern Louisiana University President Randy Moffett said.

Presidents discussed strategies that are in various stages of implementation on their campuses. Among them were: reinstating mandatory class attendance, ensuring that every student has a faculty adviser and receives counsel at least four times a year, requiring freshmen to reside on campus, offering more flexible class schedules, tracking student performance more closely and responding before students get into academic trouble, maintaining a student-to-faculty ratio of no more than 25 to 1, providing more on-campus jobs, and providing faculty with professional development to improve the effectiveness of advising.

"We want to treat all students as we do athletes or honor students," Grambling State University President Horace Judson said. "We simply want to keep up with students — where they are, what they are doing with their time, and what they need to be successful — yet, we will hold them responsible for doing higher-level work."

Although UL System graduation rates have increased steadily over the past several years, at 35 percent they still lag behind the state and national averages of 39 percent and 54 percent respectively. Under the system’s goal, universities would exceed the national figure within eight years.

The eight UL System presidents – representing Grambling State University, McNeese State University, Louisiana Tech University, Nicholls State University, Northwestern State University, Southeastern Louisiana University, UL Lafayette and UL Monroe — committed to work with faculty, staff and students to make student success the major focus of this systemic effort.

"Previously, except for Louisiana Tech, our universities have remained relatively open to all students, regardless of their academic preparation. It was an inefficient delivery of services because too many students were not prepared academically to succeed and the whole University was not directly involved in student success. That is all changing now," UL System President Sally Clausen said.

"The development of the community college system has enabled four-year campuses to raise academic standards, thus increasing students’ chances of moving to graduation at a faster pace. The challenge before us is to keep raising standards while ensuring that all students have opportunities to meet them. This is a transition period for post-secondary education in Louisiana, and we are determined to make that transition for students as smooth as possible so that they can graduate sooner and go to work."

Nicholls President Stephen Hulbert said, "We have strengthened our partnerships with schools while embracing the community colleges in our districts. We have to make sure that our students are ready for the rigor of university life and that we are ready for students to be successful once they get there."

UL System Presidents answer questions about strategies for meeting the graduation rate goal.

The UL System will release annual progress reports on graduation rates and reward presidents based on improved performance. Universities’ major focus will be on improving advising and other student assistance during the freshman year, since research shows that 20 percent of students drop out between their first and second years of college.

"Many students are not prepared for the rigors of work required on a four-year campus. That’s where faculty, staff and administrators can have a profound effect and make a difference in students’ success or failure," UL System Board Chair Mike Woods said.

State Rep. Carl Crane commended the eight Presidents and the UL System Board. “You are raising expectations, paying close attention to students’ needs, and holding yourselves accountable, and Louisiana will benefit in the long run. This initiative will have a profound effect on our economy. The faster you get students through the system, the more money the state and students will save and the quicker the students get into the job market. It is a win-win."

The Council for a Better Louisiana has identified raising graduation rates as a critical step to improving quality of life in Louisiana. Currently, only 18 percent of Louisiana residents hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.

A national education policy organization recently called attention to the need to improve graduation rates at U.S. colleges and universities. The report by The Education Trust cited Louisiana Tech and a handful of other universities in the nation that have made significant improvements in graduation rates.

Louisiana Tech implemented selective admissions in 1992 and created a culture that "involved the whole university in the graduation of students," Louisiana Tech President Dan Reneau said. The Ruston university increased graduation rates from 35 percent in 1997 to 55 percent in 2002, a 20-point gain.

According to The Education Trust, "(Louisiana Tech’s) 20-point gain shows that significant increases in institutional performance are quite possible."

There are early indications that the UL System university strategies already underway are having a positive effect. Retention rates (from freshman to sophomore year) have increased, surpassing the national average.

"Now we just have to ensure that students hang in there to graduation," UL Monroe President James Cofer said. "I believe we can do it. We owe it to our students not only to try but to succeed."

McNeese President Robert Hebert said, “Since implementing minimum admission requirements in 2000, McNeese has seen a significant increase in student retention rates. We are optimistic that this will lead to higher graduation rates as well.”

This initiative means a greater focus on student success, which is the central mission of a university.

“We emphasize the quality of the student life experience at Northwestern, blending first-rate academic programs and services with sensitivity to the needs of our students,” Northwestern President Randy Webb said. “Students are at the heart of everything we do.”