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


Awaiting a diploma

One in three SMU students fails to graduate in four years
U.S. News and World Report; SMU Office of Institutional Research

(U.S. News and World Report; SMU Office of Institutional Research)

In August, President R. Gerald Turner welcomed a new freshman class to SMU.

In his address at the opening convocation, he told the students of the unique opportunity that awaits them.

If they graduate in four years, he said, they would receive their diploma in 2015, the centennial of SMU’s opening.

“Therefore, if you don’t graduate in four years or four-and-a-half years at the most, you will blow the opportunity to be in this unique class of students,” he warned.

SMU’s recent history suggests hundreds of this year’s 1,382 first-time students will not receive their diploma in the spring of 2015.

Of the first-year students who entered SMU in the fall of 2007, one in three did not graduate in the spring of 2011, records show.

Sara Carley, a first-year student, had no inkling that so many SMU students fail to graduate in four years.

“It’s surprising because they make it seem like it’s not difficult to graduate in four years, but obviously the statistics say otherwise,” she said.

Carley’s response is hardly surprising.

Turner and other officials have publicly pointed to SMU’s rising SAT scores, its No. 62 ranking in U.S. News & World Report, and the construction of the George W. Bush Presidential Library as evidence of SMU’s rise to national academic recognition.

However, SMU’s four-year graduation rate lags behind eleven of its benchmark peer schools.

They range from 69 percent at Carnegie Mellon University to 90 percent at the University of Notre Dame.

According to U.S. News and World Report, SMU is not on the list of 100 universities with the top four-year graduation rates.

Their rates range from 77 percent at Susquehanna University to 96 percent at Webb Institute.

SMU officials recognize the problem.

They hired Anthony Tillman in 2007 to improve the university’s retention and graduation rates. At that time, SMU’s four-year graduation rate was less than 62 percent.

“We would like it to be better, no question about it,” said Anthony Tillman, SMU’s assistant provost for strategic initiatives and director of student retention.

“Honestly, there was a time when SMU was not always focused on academics, but we’re raising the bar academically, and what we expect of our faculty and students here,” he said.

Tillman believes that universities with higher four-year graduation rates are very student-centered. With the implementation of two-year residence requirements, residential learning communities, and a new University Curriculum, he predicts that SMU’s graduation rates will increase.

What programs does SMU have in place for current students who are off track and may not graduate in four years?

Tillman said that SMU tries to identify students who are struggling early on but that inevitably there will be some students who fall through the cracks.

“It is really a university-wide effort to focus on students who have fallen into a very divergent path,” he said.

He said the ALEC tutoring services, resident assistants, Caring Community Connections, and student financials can identify red flags.

However, according to Tillman, once students reach their third or fourth year and find themselves behind, then it becomes all but impossible for them to graduate with their freshman class.

Do four-year graduation rates matter?

A study released in 2011 by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research shows that parents are deeply concerned about four-year graduation rates when choosing where to send their children to college.

In an experiment, a group of parents received basic facts about two public colleges while the other group received the same information as well as the graduation rates for each institution.

Providing graduation rates, the researchers found, increased the likelihood by about 15 percent that parents would choose the college with the higher graduation rate.

There are many legitimate reasons students do not graduate in four years.

Some take on a very ambitious degree program and some simply do not pass a sufficient number of classes.

Others take part in study abroad programs and internships that hinder them from completing the required 120 academic hours.

Ryan Siu graduated early with a double major in computer engineering and economics. He says fraternity life and SMU’s party culture can get students off track.

“I don’t feel that SMU parties harder than other schools. I just feel there [are] too many students [who] aren’t being smart. I feel some of the changes, like professors taking attendance in class, hurt more than it helped,” he said.

For many students who do not finish in four years, the reason is financial.

If a student must work 25-30 hours a week to help pay for college, it becomes all but impossible to graduate in four years.

Not surprisingly, studies show that students at private colleges have the highest four-year graduation rates.

Financial hardship does little to explain SMU’s relatively low four-year graduation rate compared to its peers. As a group, SMU students come from among the nation’s wealthiest families.

Still, Tillman said SMU deserves credit for what it has accomplished.

“We do not have a 90 percent graduation rate but at 66 percent we are double the national average, which I think is a key benchmark for us,” he said.

The man hired to raise SMU’s graduation rate also cautions that too much importance can be put on the goal of graduating in four years.

“There used to be a stigma that if you did not graduate in four years that something was wrong with you,” Tillman said. “That has become much more limited because students realize they have all of these vast opportunities. It’s such a wonderful time. Some students just get lost in the learning.”


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