At the University of Rochester, three-quarters of undergraduates who entered in 2004 left with diplomas in hand within four years.
The university's four-year graduation rate of 74.6 percent makes it No. 1 among local schools and puts it within the 90th percentile nationwide, statistics compiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education show. The Chronicle analyzed four- and six-year graduation rates for 3,800 degree-granting institutions nationwide, publishing the results in an online database.
Using data from the National Center for Education Statistics and voluntary reporting from colleges themselves, it determined graduation rates for students entering as a cohort, excluding transfer students and those who began as part-time freshmen.
For UR, the numbers represent an upward trend that has occurred in the past few years-one fueled by retention efforts. Richard Feldman, dean of the College of Arts, Sciences and Engineering at UR, said he expects the numbers to rise further in the next couple of years because of these efforts.
"Our rate has not always been quite as high as it is now, and in the last couple years it's actually gone up several percentage points," Feldman said.
The six-year graduation rate at UR is 84.1 percent.
At Rochester Institute of Technology, 28 percent of the 2,063 students who entered college in 2004 graduated within four years. The six-year graduation rate at RIT jumps to 65.6 percent, placing it in the high range of colleges nationally.
For RIT, comparison to other colleges is difficult and the numbers alone fail to show the entire picture, said Jeremy Haefner, RIT provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. Though RIT reports its data in the same standardized format as other colleges, the four-year and six-year entries are not the best reflection of the true rates because many of the university's programs stretch five years with a co-op requirement.
The list also uses students seeking four-year degrees as its basis, but RIT still offers some two-year degrees in certain schools and at the National Institute for the Deaf, Haefner added. And while the Chronicle counts students who enter as freshmen, RIT's relationships with local community colleges mean it pulls in many transfers as part of the total student body.
For its own internal calculations, RIT uses a seven-year graduation rate to account for these factors. Using this benchmark improves the picture, Haefner said.
"If we use a seven-year cohort from the 2004 group, we come up with a graduation rate of 67.6 percent," he said. "Our data also shows RIT making great headway and raising all of our numbers substantially each year. The six-year cohort for 2000 shows a graduation rate of 62.7 percent, and for the 2004 cohort it's up to 65.8 percent."
For colleges locally, the rates are seen as an important benchmark of academic success and retention efforts.
At St. John Fisher College, which had a four-year graduation rate of 64.7 percent and a six-year rate of 71.5 percent, administrators continually look at academic programs to see whether they are graduating students within four years.
"We find the majority of our programs do keep students on track to graduate within four years," said Gerard Rooney, senior vice president for enrollment management and planning. "The first part of this is the availability of courses and whether they can get the requirements they need, and the other part is ensuring student success as they go through those courses."
Even with these efforts, some circumstances inevitably cause students to stay past the four-year point, Rooney said. These situations-such as a student changing majors or waiting until later to declare a major-are the main reason for the bump in the six-year rate as opposed to the four-year rate.
Results were similar at Nazareth College of Rochester, which had a four-year rate of 63.5 percent and a six-year rate of 71.9 percent. SUNY College at Brockport had four- and six-year rates of 41.3 percent and 65.1 percent, while the rates for SUNY College at Geneseo were 61.8 percent and 77.2 percent.
For two-year institutions, graduation rates were based on the number of students who graduated within 150 percent of the normal time, or three years. Monroe Community College had a 23.3 percent graduation rate, Finger Lakes Community College had 30 percent and Genesee Community College had 28.5 percent.
Focusing on retention
For UR the good results the university achieved have not come without hard work. The graduation rate increases of recent years have come in part because of a larger number of applicants that led to greater selectivity, but they are due largely to the university's efforts to keep students enrolled and on track to graduation, Feldman said.
Striving for a mix of popular programs is an important part of retention, he said. When students decide to change majors or enter the university undeclared, they will be less likely to transfer if they have many viable alternatives to choose from, he added.
"We've added some new programs that have attracted students, and that's really made a difference," he said. "Sometimes students come in expecting to major in one thing and that doesn't work, and it's important to have a range of programs to appeal to students."
Data from the Chronicle shows the university's efforts paying off. UR's freshman retention rate of 95 percent puts it among the best of all colleges and universities nationally.
The retention efforts at UR extend beyond academic programs. Feldman said the university adds events and programs to make student life on campus more appealing and has a strong aid system to keep students enrolled even through financial difficulties.
"It's important to have those things in place, and we make a real effort to work with students who are having financial or other difficulties to help them figure out how to work through those problems and remain in school," Feldman said.
Another challenge comes in developing student services that meet the needs of a large student body, Feldman added. The university has a large foreign student population, so this means tailoring programs for a diverse set of needs.
For St. John Fisher College, which has a freshman retention rate of 81.4 percent, keeping students beyond their first year is an important gauge of success. This is seen as a critical period when students are most likely to leave school or transfer, and focusing retention efforts on this period helps keep students enrolled and on track to graduate, Rooney said.
"That's something we're constantly looking for improvement in," he said. "We focus on the first-to-second-year retention because if students transition well, their likelihood to continue through to graduation is much improved. Part of that is related to the overall quality of students you bring in, and part is making sure we have efforts focused on ensuring a successful transition to the new environment for them."
Retention efforts at RIT are expected to raise the already improving graduation rates, Haefner said. The university recently began a more intensive program to keep its first-year students enrolled, and as a result freshman retention rose from 88.3 percent in 2009 to nearly 91 percent in the university's most recent calculations.
"We've been really focused in our efforts to improve that rate thanks to programs (President William) Destler put in place, and that will translate to greater percentage growth for graduation rates in the coming years," Haefner said. "We're excited to watch these numbers."
Rates are similarly high at other local colleges. Nazareth College keeps 81.3 of its freshmen, SUNY Geneseo has a 91.9 percent freshman retention rate, and the rate at SUNY Brockport is 85.2 percent.
Despite its high retention rate, officials at St. John Fisher look for ways to improve it, Rooney said. The college employs a focused orientation program, one that gives special attention to having students interact with faculty members and create their academic schedules.
"At the start of the school year we have a three-day orientation exclusively for those new students, letting them interact with faculty and the campus before a majority of our students comes back," Rooney said. "Then it continues throughout their first year, with a few academic courses designed for those first-year students and helping their transition."
These retention efforts, like the graduation rates, become an asset in themselves, Rooney said.
"This is a really important area for colleges and universities to focus on," Rooney said. "It's something families look at and value when choosing a college."
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