Improving graduation rates at Utah’s public colleges and universities

What are the college graduation rates for today’s students, and what can be done to help these students graduate on time? Advocacy organization such as Complete College America, which released a report this week titled “The Four-year Myth,” strive to answer questions like these in states across the nation. Improving college graduation rates has been identified as a priority of the Utah State Board of Regents, and the Board, along with the Utah System of Higher Education (USHE), has worked to move the needle on college completion by implementing several key initiatives.

In Utah, 49 percent of first-time, full-time students complete their bachelor’s degree within six years, or 150 percent of time. At two-year institutions, 23 percent of students graduate within 150 percent of time, or three years for an associate degree, one-and-a-half years for a one-year certificate.

The cost of attending an additional year of college in Utah, above and beyond the four years to earn a bachelor’s, is about $35,000 per year. This is calculated by adding the cost of tuition and fees for that year along with wages lost by not entering the workforce. The average tuition and fees for one year at a USHE institution is just over $5,000. Average first-year salary post-college graduation, for those graduates with a bachelor’s degree, is about $30,000.

Utah’s graduation rates are as follows:

USHE graduation rates by institution
(for first-time, full-time students)

USHE graduation rates by institution, broken out by gender
(for first-time, full-time students)

USHE graduation rates by institution, broken out by race/ethnicity
(for first-time, full-time students)


USHE has taken the following steps to address college graduation rates:

The Utah State Board of Regents established system-wide Completion Initiatives in July 2013. These are:

  1. Full-time = 15 credits/semester
    In order to graduate on time, a student must take at least 15 credits per semester (or 30 per academic year). USHE led Utah’s 15 to Finish campaign, launched in October 2013, which included a website, two videos and institutional companion sites.
  2. Plateau tuition (focused on 12-18 credit hours)
    Seven of the eight public higher education institutions in the state have plateau tuition, meaning that it costs students the same amount to take 12 credits as it does to take 18. This encourages students to take more credits per semester to graduate on time.
  3. Graduation maps
    Graduation maps offer students a clear path to their degree, with examples of courses to take each semester. USHE institutions have worked together to compile best practices for creating graduation maps, and are currently completing their maps. Most will be done by summer 2015.
  4. Improve success of developmental math
    Institutions have developed innovative strategies to increase students’ success in math and to meet the USHE goals of: enrolling in an appropriate math course during their first year in college; transitioning from developmental to credit-bearing math within three semesters. USHE also adopted high school math recommendations, which detail guidelines for high school students interested in pursuing a postsecondary education, and make specific concurrent enrollment recommendations.
  5. Reverse transfer/stackable credentials
    USHE institutions are currently exploring reverse transfer policies—that is, if a student is on her way to earning a bachelor’s degree and transfers, she might have earned enough credits for an associate degree. USHE institutions are also looking at increasing stackable credentials—earning a certificate and associate on your way to a bachelor’s degree.

USHE is also using funding to increase college completion in several ways:

 Performance Funding
In 2013, the Utah Legislature provided $1 million in one-time funds to incent USHE institutions to meet specific performance metrics that aid college completion. The Board of Regents subsequently adopted these metrics, and funding was awarded to institutions based on their performance on these metrics. Similarly, in 2014, the Legislature provided $1.5 million in one-time funds for performance funding. The Board adopted metrics, and funding will be allocated to institutions based on their performance in July 2015.

The 2015-16 USHE Budget Proposal requests $5 million in on-going funds to replace and build on a one-time appropriation in 2013-2014. It will provide outcomes-based funding for core performance measures relating to increasing productivity through improving student completion of degrees/certificates.

Completion grants to institutions
These one-time grants were designed in 2014 to support and scale projects that have been developed and tested as pilots at the institutions, specifically projects working to achieve the Board of Regents’ Completion Initiatives.

Prior Learning Assessment
Using College Access Challenge Grant funds, USHE has contracted with the Council on Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) to pilot the Prior Learning Assessment LearningCounts at three institutions: Weber State University, Utah Valley University, and Dixie State University. These institutions will implement LearningCounts for adult learners to address the 27% of Utahns with some college but no degree. Implementation will begin in 2015.