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Improving Graduation Rates for Undergraduates

by Stanley Chodorow


As part of the Agenda for Excellence and its focus on undergraduate education, the Office of the Provost and the undergraduate deans have been looking at a variety of measures to improve the undergraduate experience and Penn's educational outcomes. The Office of the Provost is announcing several new initiatives to improve Penn's graduation rate and advising system for undergraduates. Although Penn's graduation rate is already very high, many students who come close to satisfying all of their graduation requirements do not graduate because of academic and financial difficulties.

The establishment of these initiatives caps a nine-month effort led by Deputy Provost Michael Wachter with the undergraduate deans, Frank Claus and Bill Schilling from SFS, Institutional Research Director Barney Lentz, and advisers from the undergraduate schools and SFS. Working together, the group has formed an integrated academic and financial advising system for undergraduate students.

Penn's current graduation rate of 87.6% is far in excess of the national average of 70% for private universities. At the same time, while it is on a par with that of Columbia and Cornell, it falls somewhat below that of the other Ivies. Penn students who do not graduate fall into several categories: some transfer to other universities; some fail to satisfy academic requirements and are dropped from the rolls; and some decide that university education is not for them.

Yet, what the study showed was that nearly a quarter of the 12.4% who do not graduate either have satisfied all of their degree requirements but are on financial hold or have completed thirty courses but have not completed all of their degree requirements. These are the students the new initiative will concentrate on at the outset. They have made a large academic, financial, and time commitment to Penn as the University has to them. The University needs to help them complete their undergraduate education.

The heart of the new initiative is a system in which senior members of the school advising offices will be designated as liaisons to Student Financial Services (SFS). The new liaison system will enable students who face financial and academic hurdles to meet with teams of specially trained individuals who can handle both sets of problems. Working with the students, the senior advisers will identify the remaining requirements facing the students on the academic and financial fronts. Thus, the University will make important advising resources available to students in a more coordinated and effective way than ever before.

With the liaison system in place for the first time this academic year, Penn expects to provide early warning systems for students who intend to graduate and to direct the students with combined academic and financial problems to the specially trained liaisons. But the efforts that led to the creation of the new system have already produced some positive results. A number of students who had completed all of their requirements but remained on financial hold have now been given their diplomas. Just solving those cases moved Penn ahead of Columbia in the undergraduate retention rate.

The University's commitment to enhance undergraduate retention rates is further intensified by current findings that graduation rates for African-American and Hispanic students are lower than for other groups of students. One significant reason for this is the financial difficulty that too often burdens students in underrepresented minority groups. Such burdens can severely and understandably affect academic performance or prevent students from graduating.

Over the next year, Penn expects to deliver diplomas to most African-American and Hispanic students from past graduating classes who have fulfilled their academic requirements but still have financial debts to the University. Penn intends to provide assistance to all students facing this dilemma by extending to them a new, more flexible loan arrangement. Indeed, favorable terms have already been worked out for a number of students under this new arrangement. This initiative alone should improve the African-American graduation rate by three to five percentage points by next year.

The University believes its new innovative, integrated academic-financial advising system will make a noteworthy difference in the lives and success of undergraduates at Penn. For academically or financially vulnerable students, the University will turn the odds more in their favor by working with them to ensure that they are given the best possible chance to graduate with the Penn degree that they have labored so hard to attain. Everyone who has been involved in building this system deserves our deepest appreciation.


Provost Chodorow heads both the 21st Century Project and the Perelman Quad Project which includes the renewal of Logan Hall.

Return to: Almanac, University of Pennsylvania, October 28, 1997, Volume 44, Number 10