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The Times
  • Area colleges working to increase graduation rates

  • For some Utica College freshmen, the school year is starting this summer.

    The students were identified as needing extra help to be ready for college work, and will be on campus five weeks early for a pre-freshmen academic preparation course.

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  • For some Utica College freshmen, the school year is starting this summer.
    The students were identified as needing extra help to be ready for college work, and will be on campus five weeks early for a pre-freshmen academic preparation course.
    “They’re going to be much better prepared than if they just showed up in the fall,” said Steven Pattarini, vice president for student affairs and dean of academic success.
    Making sure freshmen succeed and become sophomores means better six-year graduation rates — a measure that’s more widely available to discerning prospective students and is required from schools that accept students who receive federal grants and loans.
    Like elementary and secondary schools, there’s a lot of focus on accountability in higher education, which is paid for in a large part by federal subsidized loans. The government uses the rates and other measures to ensure that students are getting what they’re borrowing to pay for.
    Statewide, the six-year graduation rate in 2009 was 59.2 percent, according to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. Two of the area’s four, four-year institutions beat that rate (Colgate University, 90 percent and Hamilton College, 86 percent) and two struggled to match it (SUNYIT, 50 percent and Utica College, 49 percent).
    “It’s far from a perfect measure, but it’s the only one that’s available that’s reported in the same way,” said Frank Balz, vice president for research and policy analysis for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
    If a high school fails regularly to meet federal and state standards, it could be closed. If a college doesn’t do well academically, there’s not a lot that the government can do, Balz said. But the Department of Education and other agencies have a lot of required paperwork, and can audit.
    SUNYIT, which became a four year institution in 2003 with a small initial freshman class, expects its graduation rate to climb. “We are continuing to build our emphasis on all of the aspects of the educational experience that might be reflected by this particular statistic, which is only one of many factors that prospective students and their parents look at when making a college choice,” SUNYIT spokesman John Swann said.
    Pattarini at Utica College said the economic recession hit students and the college hard, and a number of changes were made to try to keep students and make the financial aid process more transparent so students clearly know what the costs are.
    The slide in graduation rates the college saw, from a high of 52 percent in 2008, has leveled out, he said. “In a time of real economic downturn, we’ve been able to maintain and slightly improve our retention rates and enrollments,” Pattarini said. “We’re looking for a big bump in the next year or so.”
    Page 2 of 2 - Community colleges report three-year graduation rates.
    Herkimer County Community College’s three year graduation rate was 30 percent for 2010; for Mohawk Valley Community College that figure was 23 percent.
    Statewide the three-year rate was 21.4 in 2009.
    “We do track completion very carefully. It’s one of our top priorities,” said Jennifer DeWeerth, MVCC associate dean for student enrollment and advisement.
    Graduation rates don’t tell the whole story because of how they are computed and because people often don’t go to a community college for an entire degree track — sometimes they’re there to pick up a few classes before heading to their four-year choice.
    The students who are counted — those who are seeking a certification or associate’s degree — have a lot of help meeting those goals, such as a mandatory first-year experience course.
     “It is laying the foundation. These are the skills you need to have to be successful in college,” DeWeerth said. There are also academic recovery programs for students whose grades are so poor they no longer qualify for federal aid.
    Accountability for the college is increasingly more important, DeWeerth said.
    “It’s hitting higher education now like it hit K-12 education,” she said. “If you want your students to be eligible for (federal assistance), you have to prove that what you’re offering is of real value in the economy.”
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