By Joseph Yeado
WASHINGTON: For the University of Akron, a school with over 24,000 undergraduates, it seems strange to host a graduation ceremony in a theater that seats less than 3,000. Why not use the new football stadium that seats 28,000 for graduates, family and friends? Answer: There aren’t enough graduates to warrant a larger space.
Newly released federal data available on the College Results Online website shows that among students who began as freshmen at the University of Akron in the fall of 2005 (the most recent data available), only 38 percent graduated in six years. That is 20 percentage points lower than the national average. Even more shocking, only 11 percent of minority students finished a bachelor’s degree by 2011.
All the while, Akron pursued a $620 million capital campaign that since 2000 has resulted in 22 new buildings, the InfoCision Stadium-Summa Field among them. With student success outcomes so appallingly low, Akron should have invested resources and energy in its students the way it invested in its campus.
In recent years, critics of higher education spending have pointed to recreation centers with climbing walls and lazy rivers as a prime example of unnecessary investment. At Akron, the Student Recreation and Wellness Center (a name that just begs for a donor) actually has a rock climbing wall, spa and lazy river. You can almost see a student’s chances of graduating floating on by, along with a few inner tubes.
Since graduation rates were first collected in 2002, Akron’s overall six-year college graduation rate increased less than 2 percentage points, from 36.2 to 38 percent. That’s inadequate, but at least it is growth. The black graduation rate, on the other hand, is down from 23.5 percent in 2002 to 9.8 percent today.
That’s not a typo. Less than 10 percent of black students at the University of Akron earn a bachelor’s degree in six years. Other colleges with similar student demographics and price are much more successful. Bowling Green State University and Akron have similar acceptance rates of about 75 percent, but black students at Bowling Green graduate a full 40 percentage points higher (50.1 percent) than at Akron.
And Bowling Green isn’t the only Ohio public university with better graduation rates than Akron. Kent State University has an overall graduation rate 11.5 percentage points higher than Akron (49.5 percent) and rates for African American students that are nearly 30 percentage points better (39.6 percent). The story continues at University of Toledo, where the graduation rates for all students and for black students are 46.3 percent and 19.6 percent, respectively. Not great, but not as appallingly low as Akron.
The overall graduation rate at Cleveland State University (30 percent) is lower than Akron’s. Yet even Cleveland State posts a higher graduation rate for black students (13.1 percent) and does so while enrolling more Pell students and students of color than Akron. That black graduation rates at the University of Akron could steadily fall to such an epic low suggests the college’s administration has been focused on things other than student success.
Of course, these figures are six-year graduation rates and everyone expects to go to college for six years, right? In reality, most people enroll with the expectation of completing in four years. So how many Akron students from the 2005 freshmen cohort finished their bachelor’s degree by 2009? Only 14 percent.
That works out to just 397 students walking across the stage from a starting cohort of nearly 3,000. It’s no wonder Akron did not need the football stadium for commencement ceremonies.
These trends of scant and unequal graduation rates need not continue. The University of Akron can follow the example set by other institutions of higher education. A new report by The Education Trust, “Intentionally Successful,” highlights a number of colleges and universities that have made significant increases in graduation rates and narrowed or closed graduation rate gaps between students of color and their white peers.
Success at other colleges is not just a function of money. Resources are certainly valuable in establishing and promoting student support services like academic advising, tutoring and mentoring programs, and new student orientation. These programs succeed or fail based upon the commitment and buy-in from the administration, faculty and staff.
Colleges that have shown great improvement have succeeded by establishing a culture of completion where everyone, from tenured professor to resident assistant, is responsible for ensuring student success. This campus-wide style of engagement doesn’t necessarily require vast sums of money, but it does require leadership.
The decision to pursue an extensive building spree while so many students failed to graduate shows that Akron’s priorities were in the wrong place. The core mission of any university, especially one funded and subsidized by taxpayers, is to educate students and help them complete a degree.
With focus, determination, and resources, the University of Akron can fulfill that mission. They may even be hosting future graduation ceremonies in that football stadium.
Yeado is a higher education research analyst at The Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group for low-income and minority students based in Washington.