A record number of students are earning undergraduate degrees within four years from the University of Hawaii at Manoa — the result, officials say, of nearly a decade of initiatives aimed at better supporting student success.
The university’s four-year graduation rate climbed by a remarkable 15 percentage points between graduation years 2010 and 2016. Most schools typically see their graduation rate fluctuate by 1 percentage point from year to year.
Of the full-time freshmen entering UH-Manoa in 2006, 17.5 percent earned a bachelor’s degree within four years to graduate by 2010. The rate has nearly doubled this year to 32.1 percent for the cohort of freshmen who began at Manoa in 2012. The improvement amounts to over 300 more students graduating on time this year compared with six years ago.
“Graduation rates have never been as good as they are right now and our anticipation is that it will continue to grow,” Ronald Cambra, assistant vice chancellor for undergraduate education at UH-Manoa, said in an interview. “In the last four years, this institution has graduated more students than ever in its history.”
GRADUATING ON TIME
Of the full-time freshmen entering UH-Manoa in…
2006 >> 17.5% graduated in four years in 2010
2007 >> 18.6% graduated in four years in 2011
2008 >> 19.8% graduated in four years in 2012
2009 >> 21.2% graduated in four years in 2013
2010 >> 24.7% graduated in four years in 2014
2011 >> 27.9% graduated in four years in 2015
2012 >> 32.1% graduated in four years in 2016
Source: UH-Manoa Institutional Research Office
The flagship Manoa campus, which enrolled more than 13,000 undergraduates this fall, awarded 5,100 degrees and certificates during the 2015-16 academic year, including 3,600 bachelor’s degrees.
It’s unclear if Manoa’s four-year graduation rate has caught up to or eclipsed the national average.
The most recent national data available is for the cohort of freshmen who entered college in 2008. Among those students, 39.8 percent graduated by 2012 across public and private institutions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
The national public four-year graduation rate that year was 34.4 percent, while 52.7 percent of students at private nonprofit universities graduated on time and just 17.5 percent of students enrolled at for-profit colleges finished within four years.
National studies tend to focus on six-year graduation rates, reflecting students who earn a bachelor’s degree within 150 percent of the normal program completion time. That’s also the rate the U.S. Education Department requires institutions to disclose. UH-Manoa’s six-year graduation rate, which has held steady in recent years, is at 58.2 percent — the same as the national average for public institutions.
Cambra’s undergraduate education office was established in 2006, “almost as a direct result” of a harsh accreditation visit that called into question the university’s slow graduation rate. Since then his team has helped design and implement more than 30 initiatives aimed at getting undergraduate students to complete degree programs on time. Many of the programs have since been expanded systemwide to benefit all of UH’s campuses.
Efforts include increasing the availability of introductory courses; encouraging students to declare a major more quickly; establishing an advising center for students who haven’t chosen a major; automatically registering all incoming freshmen for their initial semester of courses; and requiring academic advising for the first two years of college.
Another key initiative has been an evolving degree-auditing software that helps students better navigate their degree programs. The STAR program — which was developed in-house at Manoa — provides students with a clear pathway to graduation by allowing them to track their progress and see in real time how the courses they select will impact the time it will take to graduate.
The system helps customize degree plans, laying out the courses students should take each semester to finish in four years. If a student registers for a course that isn’t part of their plan, the student is alerted that they’re deviating from course.
“We’re ruthless in our pursuit of student success,” said Gary Rodwell, director of academic development and technology, who developed the STAR software.
Some critics of that effort have raised concerns about the program being too restrictive when college is typically seen as a time for exploring various interests.
Roughly one-third of incoming students are unsure about which of the more than 90 undergraduate majors to pursue. A program under Cambra’s office allows students to narrow their options by taking a sampling of courses in various fields. But he said it’s ultimately the university’s social responsibility to ensure students can finish their degree programs on time.
“The reality of the situation is that it costs, even a resident student, a tremendous amount of money to not accumulate credits that are going to count toward graduation,” he said. “When you look at a student making poor decisions in terms of what classes they’re taking, that accumulation at the end of five years, six years — and without a degree — is a really major economic burden that the student walks away with. We have a responsibility to try to guide the student as much as possible toward making good decisions academically.”
At Manoa, where annual full-time resident tuition is $10,872 for the 2016-17 academic year, 37 percent of undergraduates have taken out federal loans to help pay for college, and those students graduate with a median federal loan debt of $19,000, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard.
Norelle Quila, 22, said she’s benefited from the various graduation initiatives and will be graduating — on time — on Saturday with a bachelor’s degree in family resources, a program that covers lifespan and human development, family development and family resource management.
Quila, a Keaau High School graduate who enrolled at Manoa in 2012, said even though she switched majors two years into college, she made it a priority to finish in four years.
“My goal was always to finish in four. I just wanted to get in and get out, and start on my future,” she said, adding that she’s paying for tuition mostly with financial aid and student loans. “The money is a huge thing, so that’s a factor, too.”
Quila credits academic advisers for helping her stay on track and encourages other students to take advantage of the resource: “Students have to be willing to get the help that they want.”