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Aiming for more students to earn their degrees – on time

Paige N. Piasecki’s path to a teaching degree from SUNY Buffalo State wasn’t a direct one. The Williamsville South High School graduate started at Medaille College studying psychology and switched to Erie Community College before finally finding a home at Buffalo State.

It took Piasecki nearly six years to complete her degree.

“I was all over the place, but I eventually figured it out,” she said. “Even though it did take longer, it’s worth it.”

Piasecki, 24, joined more than 1,500 other students on the Buffalo State campus Saturday for commencement ceremonies, marking the completion of their undergraduate studies.

But many college students in Western New York don’t finish.

Buffalo State was one of five colleges in the region where fewer than half of the students who enrolled as freshmen completed their degrees at the institution within six years. Buffalo State’s graduation rates have improved, from 41 percent in 2003 to 49 percent in 2013. But President Katherine S. Conway-Turner acknowledged that the college must do better.

“I think they can be quite a bit higher than they are,” said Conway-Turner, who was appointed president in 2014 and participated Saturday in her first commencement ceremony at the college.

“The expectation on my part is that they will and should be higher,” she said.

The average six-year graduation rate for four-year colleges and universities in Western New York was 58 percent in 2013, with rates ranging from as low as 41 percent at D’Youville College to a high of 78 percent at SUNY Geneseo State, according to a Buffalo News analysis of federal data.

Other findings by The News included:

• Seven of the 13 four-year colleges and universities examined had higher graduation rates in 2013 than in 2003; four had lower rates; and two stayed the same.

• The area’s largest institution, the University at Buffalo, had some of the most improved rates between 2003 and 2013. UB now graduates 72 percent of students within six years, second behind Geneseo among Western New York area schools.

• The average four-year graduation rate for Western New York colleges was 43 percent in 2013, and ranged from a low of 19 percent at D’Youville to a high of 66 percent at Geneseo.

• Seven area institutions had six-year graduation rates in 2013 that were below national averages.

The national average was 59 percent in 2013. Public institutions on average had a slightly lower rate, 58 percent, and private, nonprofit schools did better, at 65 percent.

Nationally and locally, colleges and universities are under increasing pressure to improve their rates, as more parents and potential students scrutinize the numbers during the college search process and as federal and state governments moved toward restricting aid based upon performance in areas such as college completion.

A demographic downturn in Western New York among traditional college-age students has added to the urgency in the region. Many colleges and universities already are enrolling smaller freshman classes, so they can’t afford to lose too many of those students prior to graduation.

Many campuses continue to re-examine how they can get more students to complete their degrees – and in less time. Retaining students between the freshman and sophomore year is one key, so administrators have focused on helping students overcome hurdles early on.

“It’s the best thing you can do for the college, but it’s also the right thing to do for students, regardless of any enrollment pressures,” said Mimi H. Steadman, associate vice president for institutional effectiveness at Daemen College.

Daemen improved its graduation rate from 42 percent in 2003 to 49 percent in 2013, but the rate was still among the lowest in Western New York. In 2011, the college received a federal grant to help bolster academic advising and other programs that could improve retention, Steadman said. To help more students succeed academically, Daemen began offering students who had failed building-block courses in math and science in the fall semester the opportunity to retake the course, for free, in an intensive three-week session in January, so they wouldn’t fall behind. Canisius College offers students who have fallen behind during the academic year a sizable discount on tuition for courses taken over the summer to catch up, said Richard Wall, vice president for academic affairs.

In the mid-2000s, when officials at St. Bonaventure University noticed student retention numbers dipping, they overhauled and expanded summer orientation for first-year students, established a course called the first-year experience and instituted a freshman reading program. The university also implemented better tutoring and supplemental instruction, for courses that had a high number of failures or incompletions. Up to 10 courses per semester, usually in math and science, now include a supplemental instruction component, said Chris Brown, director of the first-year experience course at St. Bonaventure. “Our end goal is graduation, even though the population we serve is freshmen,” Brown said.

In addition to the regular class taught by faculty, students in danger of falling behind can voluntarily show up for a supplemental class, taught by a trained student who already has done well in the course. All freshmen also are linked up to a “peer coach,” an upper-class student “who knows the ropes and knows how to be successful here,” Brown said. St. Bonaventure’s retention dip led to a corresponding dip in graduation rates. But changes since 2006 have helped nudge both rates up again.

Niagara University launched a new half-semester course for freshmen about five years ago, called “Niagara University Beginnings.” It aims to “set the stage for them to understand how to be a college student,” said Timothy M. Downs, provost. It has already helped lead to improved retention, and he wants to see six-year graduation rates rise from the current 65 percent to 70 percent.

The National Center for Education Statistics measures graduation rates by cohorts of first-time, full-time freshmen who complete their degree at the institution where they began. The data do not factor in transfer students, a significant shortcoming, said many college administrators.

Roughly half of all D’Youville students transferred into the college, so they do not count in the graduation rates, even if they received D’Youville degrees, said Robert P. Murphy, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management. D’Youville also offers several popular programs that deliver a bachelor’s and master’s degree simultaneously at the end of the fifth year, so students in those programs would not be counted toward four-year graduation rates.

“We understand the accountability issue. But you’ve got to tell the whole picture,” Murphy said.

UB has pushed to increase the number of students it graduates in four years by offering “Finish in Four,” a guarantee that full-time undergraduates will be able to take all the courses they need to complete their bachelor’s degrees within four years, provided that the students keep up their grades, communicate with their academic advisers and prioritize school over work. The university spent $7.5 million on 150 additional instructors and added more than 300 new course sections to make certain it could fulfill the bargain.

SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher has said current college and university graduation rates in New York aren’t good enough. She wants Finish in Four to be replicated across all of the SUNY campuses, as part of an effort to boost the number of SUNY graduates from 93,000 to 150,000 per year by 2020. And SUNY is introducing new degree-planning software to help students understand exactly what courses they must take to finish their degrees.

Buffalo State students have had access to the software, known as Degree Works, since March 2014. Campus officials also are using new software to alert them of students who might need help before it’s too late. “It allows us to see when they stumble academically, instead of waiting for them to fall,” Conway-Turner said.

Conway-Turner was focused for commencement weekend on celebrating the students who were able to cross the finish line.

Students such as Piasecki, who became the fourth generation of her family to earn a degree from Buffalo State, following in the footsteps of her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.

“When Monday comes around,” Conway-Turner said, “I’ll be thinking about how to move more students toward graduation.”