Carolina’s graduation rate is better than all but four of the nation’s public universities. But the four that do a better job happen to be the ones that currently outrank UNC in the most popular national ranking, that of U.S. News & World Report.
A committee of administrators has been working on issues related to the graduation rate for more than a year, and on March 24 the Faculty Council approved changes aimed at raising the bar for undergraduates and at the same time giving more help to those who get in academic trouble and those who may have arrived in Chapel Hill less prepared.
Beginning this fall, a student will not be able to stay in school with anything below a 2.0 grade point average. The exception is an academic probation provision for rising sophomores who are below 2.0. The administration will work with those students to identify their problems and help them get on track, including more intense advising. After the first semester of the sophomore year, every student will have to maintain a 2.0 or leave school for at least one semester.
The current standard of a 1.5 grade point average to continue after the first year is lower than that of peers and is lower than the NCAA requirement to continue athletics eligibility. Students now can enter the third year at a minimum 1.75, the fourth year at 1.9. They must have a 2.0 to graduate, but administrators say entering the eighth semester at less than 2.0 makes graduation almost impossible.
Currently Carolina has no official academic probation structure – students can ask for exceptions to the standards due to extenuating circumstances, but if exceptions are made they are not automatically given special help.
The Faculty Council also agreed to extend by two weeks the current sixth-week deadline for dropping a course.
They did not take action on proposals from the College of Arts and Sciences to expand the Summer Bridge program and to extend to all students the same level of advising offered to students who attend through the Carolina Covenant. Summer Bridge each year puts about 50 incoming freshmen through special academic preparation. The students are drawn from schools with few or no college prep offerings, such as advance placement courses. The Carolina Covenant is a work-study program that enables low-income students to graduate without debt.
In 1999, 83.7 percent of Carolina students graduated, based on the six-year graduation rate that is the standard used by the American Association of Universities, the NCAA and the U.S. Department of Education. The figures were 81.7 percent for the class of 1998 and 82.8 percent for the class of 1997. Of those who graduated, 85 percent of the class of 1999 did it in four years, and 98 percent graduated in five.
Carolina’s rate of graduation for those who graduate in four years rose from 62.6 percent in 1990 to 72.8 percent in 2001.
Cal-Berkeley, UCLA, Michigan and Virginia had rates between 87 and 92 percent for the class of 1999. One factor cited by UNC’s administration is a higher selectivity for those peer schools – all four take a substantially higher percentage of their students from the top 10 percent of their high school classes.
In a presentation to the trustees, Dean Bernadette Gray-Little of the College of Arts and Sciences, citing a 2004 study, said the key factors in failure to graduate are becoming academically ineligible, low first-year grades and a pattern of intermittent enrollment; low educational and income levels in the home; and lower levels of “academic and social engagement.”
Gray-Little said that the first class of Carolina Covenant students slightly exceeds the student body as a whole at staying in school after the first year and that Summer Bridge students graduate at the same rate as the entire student body.
The trustees also are concerned about the reasons some students take five and six years to get their degrees – generally taking a dim view of those who stretch their college careers in the absence of extenuating circumstances. The stretch may be a growing trend – Chair Jean Kitchin ’70 said she hears from parents who don’t expect their kids to graduate in four years. Trustee Rusty Carter ’71 said UNC needs to resolve what he called a “disconnect” in which 120 credit hours (an average of 15 per semester) are required to graduate but UNC’s minimum to stay enrolled is only 12 in a semester.
Continued discussion at the trustees’ April meeting was expected to center on the four-years-plus graduation issue.
Student body President Seth Dearmin said he recalled hearing former UNC System President Dick Spangler ’54 say that a student who’s smart enough to get in Carolina is smart enough to figure out how to stay there five years.
The UNC trustees got a laugh out of that, but they don’t find much levity in the practice of stretching the college career beyond the standard eight semesters. “I think we have adopted quite frankly a casualness in graduation here,” Carter said. “Fundamentally, to me, with these bright students, we aren’t requiring enough.”