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‘Finish in Four’ initiative expected to further boost UB’s four-year graduation rate

The traditional four-year path to a bachelor’s degree is seeing a revival at the University at Buffalo.

In 2013, more than half of all undergraduates who had entered UB as freshmen completed their courses within four years. A decade earlier, the number was 35 percent.

The steady rise has helped boost the university’s standing in popular national rankings. The numbers are expected to improve even further as UB’s “Finish in Four” initiative plays out.

And now SUNY officials want to apply to the entire state system of public colleges and universities the same college completion guarantee for students currently offered by UB, Fredonia, Oswego and Potsdam.

UB in 2012 began guaranteeing that full-time undergraduates will be able to take all the courses they need to complete their bachelor’s degrees within four years, provided the students keep up their grades, communicate with their academic advisers and prioritize school over work.

Under the guarantee, known as “Finish in Four,” UB will pay the cost of tuition beyond four years if the university is at fault for a student not graduating on time. The first group of undergraduates to be affected is the Class of 2016. But UB officials said they already have a sense that the program is working well because many of the highest-demand courses need to be taken within the first two years of an undergraduate student’s time on campus, and the Class of 2016 is beyond that.

“We’re going to meet the course demands of our enrolled students,” said A. Scott Weber, senior vice provost for academic affairs at UB.

It hasn’t been easy or cheap. The university hired 150 additional instructors and added more than 300 new course sections to make certain it could fulfill its end of the bargain – all of which cost about $7.5 million.

Just a few years ago, strained by tight budgets combined with growing enrollments, the university struggled to keep up with student course needs.

“We really had some bottlenecks in high-demand courses,” Weber said.

Students in health science fields, for example, often couldn’t get into anatomy, a prerequisite course. Some students had trouble registering for language courses, a degree requirement for most UB undergraduates.

Now, anytime a student has trouble getting into a required course, if he or she stays in contact with an academic adviser, Weber said, “we’ll figure out a way to make it work.”

“There’s a joint responsibility in the program,” he added. “Clearly, students, if they’re not sufficiently proactive, can make some mistakes along the way. What we’re trying to do is share some responsibility with them.”

Weber said he isn’t sure how much Finish in Four will edge up four-year graduation rates, in part because students aren’t obligated to participate. In fact, about only half of freshmen have enrolled so far. But the university-wide focus on timely progress and completion has “a lot of ancillary benefits that may or may not appear in the data,” he said.

Students who have enrolled in the program have shown an increase in grade-point average, class standing and first-to-second-year retention, according to UB President Satish K. Tripathi.

“Over the past 10 years, I’m happy to say our graduation rates have been steadily improving as a result of these efforts, and our four-year graduation rates well exceed the national average,” Tripathi said. “Our Finish in Four program, which we’ve been able to implement with NYSUNY 2020 resources, has been a key contributor. Our UB students are participating enthusiastically, and we are seeing measurable impact in academic success.”

University officials anticipate four-year graduation rates will climb to as high as 60 percent within a few years.

“We’d love every student to finish in four years, but that’s not realistic,” Weber said.

UB’s six-year graduation rate has gone up consistently as well, and is currently at 72 percent.

Four years historically has been considered the normal amount of time for undergraduate study in U.S. colleges and universities. Hence, the term four-year degree being synonymous with bachelor’s degree.

But the reality across the nation is that most students take longer to finish their undergraduate studies. On average, the four-year graduation rate at public colleges and universities in about 26 percent. The average six-year graduation rate is 58 percent. The State University of New York, as a whole, does better than the national average.

But Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher made it clear in her “State of SUNY” address on Friday that the current graduation rates aren’t good enough, and she proposed replicating “Finish in Four” across the entire SUNY system to help boost them.

“It’s a concerted effort on the part of SUNY to do what’s right by the student,” said Alexander N. Cartwright, provost and executive vice chancellor of SUNY. “We recognize that anytime we delay graduation it has an impact on that person’s career earnings for life.”