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January 6, 2011

Pitt among top 5 for most improvement in 6-year grad rate

DiplomaPitt ranked among the top five public research institutions in the increase of six-year graduation rates over the past five years. Graduation rates on the Pittsburgh campus increased 12 percentage points from 2003 to 2008, according to an analysis published last month in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Of freshmen entering Pitt in fall 1997, 65 percent had graduated by 2003. For freshmen entering in fall 2002, 76 percent had graduated by 2008, according to federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data.

San Diego State topped the list of public research schools with the highest six-year graduation rate gain, rising 17 percentage points to a 2008 rate of 61 percent.

Pitt’s gain of 12 percentage points was shared by George Mason University, which rose to 61 percent; Georgia State, which rose to 44 percent, and Temple, which rose to 66 percent.

Juan J. Manfredi, vice provost for Undergraduate Studies, said Pitt is proud of its progress, adding that the University aspires to a six-year rate comparable to or better than the best public research schools in the nation.

Additional gains are needed to move into the company Pitt wants to keep. Although it ranked among the fastest risers, the University’s 76 percent rate placed it behind 25 other public research universities in the Chronicle ranking.

The University of Virginia led the list with a six-year graduation rate of 93 percent in 2008, followed by the College of William and Mary (91 percent) and the University of California-Berkeley (90 percent.)

Manfredi said, “The factors that have played into our current steady increase are ones that we are confident will continue to have a positive effect on our retention and graduation rates,” although he would not estimate how long it might take to lift Pitt’s six-year graduation rate to among the top schools.

Manfredi said Pitt’s rising graduation rate is a reflection of the University’s commitment to undergraduate education, re-emphasized in the University trustees’ 1996 resolution to aggressively pursue academic excellence. (See Feb. 29, 1996, University Times.)

Pitt’s 2010 freshman class had an average high school grade point average of 3.91, with 51 percent graduating in the top 10 percent of their class and 78 percent graduating in the top 20 percent. The midrange SAT score (math and reading) for incoming freshmen was 1190-1350. Manfredi credited the efforts of the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid, the Division of Student Affairs, Pitt’s schools, Facilities Management “and, in fact, the entire University community” with the recruitment and retention of “very high-achieving freshman classes who connect with our institution and go on to get their bachelor’s degree.” He said, “We have strengthened our academic support and counseling services, developed a nationally recognized outside-the-classroom curriculum and are committed to a strong residence life program.

“The academic strength of our incoming freshmen has grown and we are fostering the interaction of students with faculty in their home department. Our advisers and faculty play a strong role in our success,” he added.

A variety of support efforts have had an effect, Manfredi noted. “We have a strong advising system that starts at the PittStart sessions and continues with mandatory advising meetings until graduation. We have implemented a range of academic support services that include the Writing Center, the Mathematics Assistance Center and the Academic Resource Center. We have expanded our Counseling Center and improved the quality of University housing. The three-year housing guarantee is another factor we believe is having a positive impact on retention and graduation rates,” he said.

Some educators criticize the six-year graduation rate — a standard federal measurement — because many students are not included in the calculation. The rate counts only first-time, full-time students entering in the fall who complete their bachelor’s degree within 150 percent of the time expected to graduate from a four-year program. That means that students who transfer into or out of a school are not included, nor are part-timers or students who leave school and return later to finish their degrees.

Given that Pitt’s transfer student population makes up an average of 20 percent of the student body, approximately 80 percent of Pitt’s undergrads are represented in the cohort used to compute the six-year graduation rate, Manfredi noted.

“An important segment of our student population, transfer students, is not included, nor does this include our part-time students. But given the different academic backgrounds of transfer students in terms of credit hours and academic requirements satisfied prior to arriving to Pitt, it is impractical to group them in cohorts for the purposes of calculating graduation rates,” he said.

Although the measurement fails to include all students, Manfredi said that having a well-defined cohort  — in this case, first-time fall freshmen — does allow for longitudinal time comparisons as well as comparisons with peer institutions.

“The weaknesses of this measure include the fact that it does take a long time to see the impact of the changes we have made,” Manfredi said.

“Further, it is measuring only those students who both start and finish their undergraduate work here. Students transfer to other colleges or universities for good reasons, both academic and personal, and we can be proud of the strong foundation that their initial years at Pitt offer them. If those students who started at Pitt as freshmen but graduated with a degree from another institution are included, our six-year graduation rate increases to 86.3 percent.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 43 Issue 9

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