Low standards in schools encourage six-year plan

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Forget about the four-year college student. At most South Florida universities, students are struggling to finish their educations in six years.

Graduation rates at South Florida’s colleges and universities trail the state and the nation. Only one major four-year institution in South Florida, the University of Miami, has a six-year graduation rate above 50 percent, according to the most recent figures available from the schools and the National Center for Education Statistics.

At Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, 37 percent finished in six years. Nova Southeastern in Davie had a graduation rate of 39 percent. A substantially smaller number of students finish in four years, with FAU among the lowest at 16 percent.

“To graduate in four years, you have to take 15 hours every semester and basically have no life,” said FAU sophomore Kristi Digennaro, of Boca Raton, who expects to graduate in five years. “I take 12 to 14 hours a semester.”

But some education experts see this as a problem. Students who spend five or more years in college end up with more debt and a smaller lifetime earning potential than those who get out in four years, said Danette Gerald, senior research associate for the Education Trust, a research and policy organization based in Washington, D.C.

“We should be very concerned if students who enroll in our colleges have less than a 1-in-2 chance of getting a degree in four years,” she said. “Most don’t finish until five or six years, and of course many never finish at all. We need to ask ourselves, are we setting our students up to be as successful as possible?”

Educators say there are many reasons for these low numbers. Some students transfer to other colleges. Many students are nontraditional, fitting in a few classes between work and family life. Some students can only afford to take a few classes at a time. Some schools have low admission standards and end up with a large number of students who are unprepared for college.

“We have a commitment to open access,” said Don Rosenblum, dean for the College of Arts and Sciences at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Fla. “We have a sizeable non-traditional population – students who have not been in a university setting for 10 or 15 years. Not all of them are going to be successful.” He also said many students take core classes at Nova Southeastern, then complete their degrees elsewhere.

National research has shown that schools with higher admission standards tend to have higher graduation rates.

In addition, schools that serve traditional 18- to 22-year-old students have rates higher than those serving commuter or nontraditional students.

As a statewide system, the graduation rate for public universities in Florida compares favorably with the nation’s.