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Can admission standards fix Utah's college completion woes?
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah high school students have been able to coast into college for years because the state's open-enrollment universities take any applicant with a diploma. But in the face of weak rates of completed degrees, key educational leaders are wondering whether it's time to erect modest barriers to give high schoolers an incentive to prepare and divert those with weak prospects into technical training.

This fall, Utah Valley University unveiled GPA and ACT score requirements that incoming students under 23 must meet to avoid remedial course work. It will be the first time an open-enrollment school in Utah asks applicants for their high school grades.

"Even if it's only an inch high, it's still a hurdle," said Sen. Steve Urquhart, co-chairman of the Legislature's Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee, in praising the move by UVU President Matthew Holland.

Meanwhile, Utah's selective schools — University of Utah, Utah State University, Southern Utah University and the private Westminster College — are making no secret of their desire to raise admissions standards, while Brigham Young University already maintains a high bar.

Holland's plan marks a subtle yet profound shift in the way open-enrollment schools, the crowded work horses of Utah's system of higher education, operate their gates. Observers say the new standards don't foreclose the possibility of a university education for low achievers, while sending an important message.

"If you don't [impose standards] the message is 'Come one, come all, high school doesn't matter.' Yet high school matters a lot," said Holland's predecessor, William Sederburg, now commissioner of higher education. "You want to be clear, yet at the same time help kids. That is what Matt is trying to do."

Weak graduation rates mean the state is squandering resources on students who don't get degrees and far too few working-age people will have the credentials to participate in a knowledge-based economy. Students face many obstacles to graduating, such as jobs, family responsibilities and finances, but the biggest is lack of the math and language skills necessary for college-level studies.

The state offers students a carrot for preparing in the form of Regents scholarships, for those with a 3.0 GPA or higher, and New Century scholarships, for those who complete an associate degree in high school.

Urquhart, R-St. George, hopes other open-enrollment schools consider replicating UVU's initiative, a small stick.

"We are open enrollment to everyone who has a chance for succeeding, but let's determine who has a good chance," he said. "If we continue to admit everyone regardless of whether they have a chance of succeeding, are we really doing them a favor?"

Dixie State College vice president of academic services Donna Dillingham-Evans said her school would be open to using GPAs as an enrollment guide if it benefits students. An early ACT test could alert students they need remedial help before college — but even more important is an early focus, she said.

"Young people need to be more strenuous about education from the third grade on," she said. "The best thing parents can do is presume their children will go to college."

UVU officials have been careful to call the new benchmarks "enrollment standards," as opposed to "admission standards," because failure to meet them doesn't exclude students from admission to the Orem campus. Those who earn less than a 19 composite ACT score and a high school GPA south of 2.5 are directed into "structured enrollment," where they must complete remedial courses, undergo aggressive advising and take a college-prep course before they can take university courses.

This strategy won an endorsement from Nancy Karpowitz, president of the Utah School Counselor Association.

"They aren't closing the door, but trying to identify those students and get them the help they need to be successful. Some might not realize until they get in a higher-level class they don't have the skills to finish college," said Karpowitz, a secondary-education counseling specialist for Jordan School District.

Officials at Dixie and Weber State University use a provisional enrollment status for unprepared students, identified by Accuplacer test results. Applicants who don't meet certain ACT thresholds must take the test.

Urquhart and others favor using both GPAs and ACT scores as benchmarks because they are concrete targets for high school students, and grades provide an earlier warning of a need to improve.

More than half of the incoming students at open-enrollment schools require at least one remedial course. While it fills holes in students' knowledge, remedial coursework doesn't earn credits but does add time and expense. It can't be the only answer, Urquhart argues.

"The longer you are there," Urquhart said, "the less likely you will graduate."

bmaffly@sltrib.com

Getting that degree

According to a new national study by Complete College America, graduation rates have stagnated even as college enrollments climb, especially for part-time students.

Of those who start a four-year college:

60 percent of full-time students graduate with a bachelor's degree within eight years

25.6 percent of part-time students graduate with a bachelor's degree within eight years

Four-year completion rates are far worse for those seeking associate degrees.

In Utah, the eight-year graduation rate is 46.3 percent for full-timers, and 22.6 percent for part-timers. —

Getting that degree

According to a new national study by Complete College America, graduation rates have stagnated even as college enrollments climb, especially for part-time students.

Of those who start a four-year college:

60 percent of full-time students graduate with a bachelor's degree within eight years

25.6 percent of part-time students graduate with a bachelor's degree within eight years

Four-year completion rates are far worse for those seeking associate degrees.

In Utah, the eight-year graduation rate is 46.3 percent for full-timers, and 22.6 percent for part-timers.

Higher education • Poor preparation cited as key reason for state's weak graduation rates.
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