More than 2,600 of the University of Akron's "college ready" undergraduate students did not return to campus this fall to work toward getting their degrees.

These were not the most at-risk students. Rather, they were deemed "college ready" when they entered UA based on their high school GPAs and college entrance exam scores.

Meanwhile, fewer than half — 45.2 percent — of first-time, full-time UA undergraduate students graduate in six years.

Student success — improving student retention and graduation rates — is the top priority of the university's three-year strategic plan that UA is calling an Action Plan. Developed through a campus-wide process, UA's trustees approved it Wednesday at a regular board meeting.

"It is very important at this time in our history to have this be our No. 1 priority," Interim President John Green told trustees. "Over the next three years, we're going to pursue in many, many different ways increasing student success."

The plan comes as the university continues to face budget gaps and declining enrollments. After almost hitting 30,000 students in fall 2011, the university this fall enrolled 20,554. UA, like other Northeast Ohio universities, is being challenged by a decrease in high school graduates.

In addition to improving student success, the plan's priorities are emphasizing "academic distinctiveness," generating additional revenue and continuing to improve "efficiency and effectiveness."

UA Provost Rex Ramsier said in an interview that the Action Plan is partly a "re-emphasizing" of many things the campus already is doing.

One idea under consideration is selling and then leasing back InfoCision Stadium, the student recreation center and other facilities to cut UA's debt.

Student success goes hand in hand with revenues, as students bring in tuition dollars and some of UA's state funding is tied to graduation rates.

The plan calls for the six-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time students to increase by 2 percent in each of the plan's three years. The comparable graduation rate at Kent State University is nearly 59 percent.

UA's plan also calls for the percentage of all undergraduates who return from one year to the next — now at 71 percent — to rise by 1 percent in each of the three years.

One move UA will make is to have bachelor's degrees require 120 credits. Currently, some degrees require more credits. This would reduce costs to students and the time it takes to earn a degree, the Action Plan notes.

Also, beginning next fall, the university will require all undergraduate students with less than 60 credits to meet with their college advisers before registering for classes. Currently, only students with less than 30 credit hours must meet with their advisers.

"It's not as if we haven't always cared" about student success, Green told trustees, "but now we want to give this our top priority."

The nine-page Action Plan is backed up by detailed plans put together by colleges and divisions. It they were included, "we'd be looking at a little more than a thousand pages," Green said.

The idea is to have the Action Plan set priorities as the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 is prepared. Additionally, it will be used in the upcoming search for Green's replacement. Green, a longtime UA political science professor, has opted not to be a candidate for the top job. He was appointed in May after Matthew Wilson stepped down and returned to the UA law school faculty.

Also to generate additional revenues, UA will boost student recruitment and fundraising, according to the Action Plan.

One recruitment effort involves trying to attract more of UA's College Credit Plus students — high school students who attend UA and earn college credits. Currently, about 500 of the school's roughly 2,000 College Credit Plus students a year enroll in UA after they graduate high school.

UA also plans to increase funding generated by auxiliary (non-academic) units, such as athletics. The athletics department, for example, will implement a plan to reduce by $8 million the amount it gets each year from the university's general fund. A total of $3 million of the $8 million would come from reducing costs. The remaining $5 million would come from generating additional revenues, through fundraising and other means.

Plans are to be made for a fundraising campaign that will be in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of the university, which is in 2020, according to the Action Plan.

Concerning "academic distinctiveness," the Action Plan calls for the university to develop new degrees in high-demand areas, as well as interdisciplinary initiatives, such as global and pre-med studies.

Efforts also include offering bachelor's degrees at UA's Wayne College in Orrville, which currently does not offer them. Ramsier said possible Wayne College bachelor's programs include communication, nursing and sports science.

In the category of improving "efficiency and effectiveness," the plan calls for UA to "significantly reduce" the number of courses with low enrollments. Ramsier explained in an interview that software will be used to help class schedulers figure out how many students need specific courses in a given semester.

Among other efficiency efforts, is a plan to centralize, "where appropriate," administrative personnel in key services, including information technology, development, marketing and communications, compliance and budgeting.

 

Katie Byard can be reached at 330-996-3781 or kbyard@thebeaconjournal.com. You can follow her @KatieByardABJ on Twitter or on Facebook.