The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

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SMU academics: not making the grade

Day one: Only six in 10 SMU students graduate in four years

In the fall of 2007, President R. Gerald Turner told faculty members that SMU was proud to welcome 1,309 entering first years. “Now our jobs,” he said, “are to retain, educate and graduate these new members of the SMU family.”

SMU officials hope these areas improve significantly. Many faculty members, administrators and students worry SMU is not making the grade academically.

Take the university’s four-year graduation rate, a key measure of academic excellence. Of the first-year students who entered SMU in 2003, less than 62 percent graduated in 2007 – and this was the university’s highest four-year graduation rate in at least six years.

SMU’s four-year graduation rate is significantly lower than nine benchmark schools that SMU strives to emulate. The four-year graduation rate at those schools ranges from 79 percent at Wake Forest to 90 percent Duke University.

“That’s not something people talk about too much,” said Dr. David Doyle, a professor of English and the director of the SMU Honors Program. “Everybody at SMU wants retention and graduation rates to improve. It would scare parents to know that students aren’t graduating in four years.”

Between 2002 and 2007, the average four-year graduation rate at SMU was less than 57 percent. The graduation rate has been steadily increasing, from 53.1 percent in 2002 to 61.7 percent in 2007.

SMU did not come close to making the list of the 100 colleges with the highest four-year graduation rates as put together by US News and World Report. The graduation rates for those schools range from 92 percent at Haverford College in Pennsylvania to 72 percent at Wofford College in South Carolina.

Sterling Morriss graduated from SMU in 2007 with an art history degree. She did it in four years. She was surprised to learn that only six in 10 in her first-year class graduated with her.

“I’m shocked that it’s that low, but I’m not necessarily that shocked that we’re not at the same level as our benchmark schools,” she said. “Through my time with the university, I know that the schools that we consider our benchmark are much better than us. Those schools have a much higher stress on academics, much higher SAT scores.”

Zach Stokes, a senior French major, said he wished he had known about SMU’s graduation rate earlier. “I would have loved to hear that information. I had no idea it was so low,” he said. “My little brother is graduating from high school soon, and I’m going to tell him to look at graduation rates before he commits to a college.”

Morriss agreed. She said the information should be available to students entering SMU and those currently enrolled. “You should always be as aware as you can be of the school that you will be going to or are currently going to,” she said. “Everything about the school reflects in your degree. Obviously the university isn’t going to make the knowledge public, but it’s something that should be researched by everyone coming in.”

SMU officials are so concerned about the low graduation rate that for the first time in SMU history, they have brought in a specialist to research the problem. Anthony Tillman is an expert in helping colleges address low graduation rates and other academic issues.

“We have a long way to go, don’t we,” was Tillman’s response to the figures in US News and World Report. “Many of these are similarly small schools. The question becomes: What are they doing that we aren’t doing? They are small liberal arts schools. Sixty-one percent, that is pretty bad.”

There are various explanations for SMU’s low four-year graduation rate. Dr. Doyle suggests studying abroad is one. Another, he said, could be students who decide to double-major and triple-major. But Dr. Doyle said the main reason is that SMU does not put a strong emphasis on academics.

“There is an anti-intellectual feeling on studying and students not wanting to study,” said Dr. Doyle. “There are all sorts of things that come up for students, but I think that if they [administrators] were more serious, the numbers would be higher.”

Tillman agrees that the numbers should be higher. “No one in the administration is satisfied with where we are with the graduation rates,” he said. “There is a sense that we can and should be doing better.”

Tillman cites other reasons for the sagging graduation rate. “There is some thinking that for some students SMU is not their first choice,” he said. “They come here and after their first year they transfer to one of the other [benchmark] schools.”

One reason many students leave, according to Tillman, is that they do not feel like they are part of a community at SMU. “Our campus community is part of it,” he said. “How do students become connected to an institution? Right now there is a bit of a disconnect with that area of community. Do we have a common experience that connects in the overarching manner? I am not certain.”

Many SMU students share the same opinion regarding their academic courses: They are too easy. Last fall, administrators surveyed 667 students enrolled in Wellness I classes. When asked to compare their expectations about SMU’s academic rigor prior to taking classes with what they actually experienced, almost one-quarter said SMU was either “slightly easier than expected” or “much easier than expected.”

Dr. Doyle said that in the final analysis, it is up to SMU’s leaders to improve the university’s four-year graduation rate. “Unless the institution is behind us, it’s going to be hard to change,” he said.

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