Ramona Nyffler planned to take a one-year break between high school and college. And then, she got pregnant, and one year stretched into three. With a 2-year-old, a full-time job and dreams of a degree, Nyffler spent five years squeezing classes into a busy schedule. That often meant classes early in the morning, at lunch and at night, and in the end, it meant a bachelor's degree from National American University in Rapid City.
"I'm not a quitter," she said. "I don't like to not finish things. I was going to do it, no matter how long it took or what it took."
Officials say more students with Nyffler's determination - paired with more universities that offer flexible class schedules - are going to be needed if the United States is going to turn the tide on its declining college graduation rate.
Fewer than half of the students who start at South Dakota's colleges and universities make it to graduation within six years, and National American University, South Dakota School of Mines & Technology and Black Hills State University have some of the worst graduation rates in the country, according to a report released in June.
The report, released by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, studied
almost 1,400 institutions throughout the U.S. to see how many first-time freshmen actually graduated within six years from the institutions where they began their education.
NAU in Rapid City reported a 15 percent graduation rate, which was among the lowest for non-competitive schools in the country. Black Hills State University didn't fare much better. It was among the worst of the Midwest's less competitive schools, sporting a 22 percent graduation rate.
The School of Mines was also among the worst in the country for very competitive schools with its 40 percent rate.
South Dakota had an average graduation rate of 43.3 for the 12 institutions included in the report.
The state was not alone. Graduation rates nationwide that hovered below 50 percent; 40 percent, and even 30 percent were easy to find: Colorado had a rate of 44.7; Idaho, 41.7; North Dakota, 44; and Wyoming, 57.
Local college officials all agreed that the study "Diplomas and Dropouts: Which Colleges Actually Graduate Their Students (And Which Don't)" by the American Enterprise Institute was a legitimate study but also urged caution when reviewing the numbers.
John Quinn, president of NAU's Rapid City campus, said the university ranked low on the list because about two-thirds of its students are non-traditional students who take online classes or stretch their classes out over more years.
"We have a lot of people transferring in and transferring out," he said. "… I don't think this gives an accurate picture."
Quinn said the dropout rate for spring 2009 was 4.2 percent, and the winter dropout rate was 9.8 percent.
"We have a heavier and heavier component of non-traditional students, and by definition, they're not going to show up on a survey," he said.
Black Hills State University president Kay Schallenkamp agreed. "The numbers are there, but the story's not," she said.
The number of students transferring to and from schools, a trend that has been dubbed "swirling," has increased dramatically in the past several decades.
"It used to be you started at a university and you ended there," she said.
Of the BHSU students studied in the report, Schallenkamp said 34 percent of them transferred to another institution, and 19 percent of those students later graduated.
Colleges statewide have also struck agreements with South Dakota State University, which has a 53 percent graduation rate, and the University of South Dakota, 48 percent, so nursing students can earn general education credits at local colleges and then transfer into the USD and SDSU nursing programs. The graduation numbers are counted toward SDSU and USD, Schallenkamp said.
At the School of Mines, provost and vice president for academic affairs Karen Whitehead said her major concern about the study was that it used the 2001 cohort of students but used current admission standards to group schools. The School of Mines increased its admission standards in 2006 and was included in the "very competitive" category. In 2001, when its admission standards were lower, the school probably would have been included in the less competitive classification, according to Whitehead, and a 40 percent graduation rate would have put them in the middle, not the bottom.
One of the challenges with a specialized school like Mines is that students transfer or drop out if they decide they don't want to be a scientist or engineer, Whitehead said. The school is also still going through a transition from increasing the admission standards, she said.
"Many of the students we were admitting under a nearly open admission policy simply weren't prepared for the rigors of engineering and science curriculum," she said. "We have seen significant increases in retention for the 2006 cohort and are optimistic that our graduation rates in 2012 for students who started in 2006 will be substantially higher than they are today."
Schallenkamp said Black Hills State numbers look better already.
The 2003 cohort graduated 14 percent more students than the 2001 cohort. "2001 was a snapshot," she said. "It didn't tell the whole story."
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But beyond transfers and special circumstances, some students simply quit.
Black Hills State University has tracked some of those students, and their diverse reasons for dropping out include financial, family and health.
"It's all over the map," Schallenkamp said.
David Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, said finances are not the leading cause of dropouts. Instead, he said, "it's life." A spouse in the military, a student's illness or a family illness are all common reasons to quit.
In addition, there are many Americans who have started and not finished, he said, and those are the people to whom institutions should be reaching out as officials try to curb low graduation rates.
"There's a very significant number of people who have college credits who, with a little bit of coaxing, could come back," he said.
South Dakota is well on its way to that, he said, with institutions offering night and weekend courses and the state's Board of Regents supporting efforts to fund and expand extension offices for classes in Sioux Falls and the recently approved University Center-Black Hills, a higher education center in Rapid City.
"We are working hard to provide access to students who may have started and not finished," said Board of Regents vice president Kathy Johnson, who pointed out that 26 percent of West River adults have taken college courses but not finished their degrees.
"It's that population that oftentimes is attracted to finish if college is accessible to them," she said.
There's even more work to do though, Longanecker said. The state hasn't tapped its only growing young population - Native American students. "You'll have to find a better way to serve those students," he said.
Johnson said the regents are aware of the retention needs that should be addressed and have offered incentives to institutions for increasing retention rates. It isn't uncommon in South Dakota for students to take longer than the traditional four to six years to earn a degree.
But Longanecker pointed out that nationally, fewer than 5 percent of students take longer than six years to earn a baccalaureate degree. In South Dakota, Johnson said, a recent studied showed that the 10 percent of the 2002 cohort of students were still enrolled after six years.
"There's a tendency for students to take their time, sometimes, and minimize debt load," she said, especially when they are holding down jobs at the same time.
Quinn agreed that there is room for improvement for all of the institutions. Even though the school caters to non-traditional students, the goal at NAU is still completion of a degree, he said.
Longanecker said institutions would be wise to make an effort to clear hurdles for students, especially those who are coming back a second time. Schools should go out of their way to work with students who are reluctant to come back because of something minor - a parking fine, or a former bad grade, a mix-up with financial aid, credits that were earned years ago.
"You look at those situations, and you work it out," he said.
More so, they learn from studies like the one released in June because it's doing the one thing that must happen in order to make changes: spurring discussion. There are limitations to the data, he said.
"But it's a good thing to have on the table," he said.
Starting, not finishing
In a national survey of America's colleges and universities, three Black Hills area schools ranked among the worst in graduation rates.
National American University in Rapid City graduates only 15 percent of its students, the worst in the Midwest and among the bottom 10 nationally.
Black Hills State University in Spearfish graduates only 22 percent of its students as well, putting it near the bottom of the less competitive Midwest schools.
South Dakota School of Mines & Technology graduates only 40 percent of its students, which placed it on the bottom 10 list nationally for very competitive colleges.
All three schools sport the worst graduation rates in the state, along with Northern State University (40 percent). The state's highest graduation rate belongs to Augustana College (65 percent).
Contact Kayla Gahagan at 394-8410 or firstname.lastname@example.org