A new way of registering students for classes and tracking their progress at the University of Hawaii Manoa could help students graduate faster and possibly save families and taxpayers millions of dollars, administrators say. 

The new computer program is part of a push at the University of Hawaii system to improve graduation rates.

Although in recent years the rates have been steadily increasing at UH Manoa, only 27.9 percent of full-time traditional students graduate in four years. The school’s six-year graduation rate is 57 percent, slightly below the national average. At UH West Oahu, 40 percent of students graduate in six years, with 38 percent earning a degree at UH Hilo.

Delayed college graduation can be pricey, for both students and taxpayers.

‘This is dedicated to to family and friends’ on a undergrad hat during commencement ceremony. 16 april 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat
About 1,700 students graduated from UH Manoa with bachelors’ degrees last May. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In 2012 the cost of educating a UH Manoa student for a full year was $22,561 — more than two and a half times what students paid in tuition, according to College Measures, a website operated by the American Institutes for Research.

Research shows the longer it takes students to obtain their degrees, the more likely they will drop out — leaving them saddled with college debt and nothing to show for it.

“Getting halfway through, particularly with debt financing, and not crossing the finish line arguably leaves some people worse off than if they had never gone to college,” said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Harder To Go Off Course

To tackle what UH Manoa information technology specialist Gary Rodwell calls a national “graduation crisis,” the university is piloting a new “opt out” registration system that would be one of the first of its kind among four-year public universities.

“We think this a game changer,” Risa Dickson, vice president of academic affairs for the UH system, said. “When students register they will be registering on a defined path, which is so different from historically what students have done.”

Instead of selecting courses each semester from hundreds of offerings, by April 2017 all students in the UH system will be given a list of five suggested courses each semester that put them on the best path toward graduation.

“The alternative is the cafeteria model, where you walk down the buffet line and say, ‘I will take some of that, and some of that,’” said Mark Schneider, vice president at the American Institutes for Research, a nonpartisan corporation that analyses education policy. “There’s pretty good evidence that the cafeteria model for low-income students, first-generation college students, and some non-traditional students is actually detrimental. It doesn’t work.”

University of Hawaii students gesture during commencement ceremonies held at UH Manoa. 16 may 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat
University of Hawaii students gesture during commencement ceremonies held at UH Manoa last May. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

By next March, up to 5,000 students will be using the system — a number that will rise to 30,000 by next November and then to all students by April 2017.

In the new system, if a student at UH Manoa wants to register for a class that does not count toward their degree they can do so — but only by “opting out” of the suggested courses and agreeing to possible financial aid repercussions.

Federal financial aid can only be spent on classes that count toward a degree program. Because few — if any — colleges currently have a registration system sophisticated enough to track whether each class counts toward a specific program, the threshold is often simply whether a class counts for college credit.

“Every credit above 120 that a student is taking is costing the taxpayer money.” — Mark Schneider, American Institutes for Research

A few states try to limit the number of classes a student takes by penalizing them after they accumulate a certain number of credits without graduating, Schneider said.

The overconsumption of higher education is a big issue, Schneider said. Nationwide, students have an average of 134 credits when they graduate — about 14 more than most programs require.

“Every credit above 120 that a student is taking is costing the taxpayer money,” Schneider said.

The new UH registration system will require students receiving financial aid to be registered for 12 credits each semester that count toward their specific degree before financial aid will pay for any extracurricular classes that don’t count, Rodwell said.

That could be problematic for some students, UH Manoa environmental science major Jackson Berwein said.

This semester, Berwein signed up for an extracurricular course that wouldn’t count toward his degree because not all the classes he needed were available and he had to take 12 credits to be considered a full-time student.

“Sometimes it’s just not possible to get the classes,” he said.

There are a number of legitimate reasons why students may need to take courses that don’t count toward a specific degree program, Nassirian said.

“I certainly hope there would be enough flexibility in implementing it to ensure that it doesn’t become a punitive attempt to promote the ‘completion agenda,'” Nassirian said in an email.

Tracking Program Rates

UH is trying to identify challenges like course scheduling that could prove stumbling blocks to graduation by tracking what they call “program velocity” — essentially how quickly students are progressing toward graduation in each program.

Preliminary results at UH Manoa showed that only a quarter of the programs tested had a majority of students taking enough credits to be considered “on track” to complete the program in four years. In some programs, it would take students more than six years to graduate. 

“Up until now the narrative has been, ‘It’s the students’ fault,’” Rodwell said. “What we are saying is if you have 200 or 300 students in your program and they are all taking five or six years to graduate, statistically there’s probably a problem within the program.”  

Students were on track to graduate in four years in roughly a quarter of the 95 programs surveyed at UH Manoa.
Students were on track to graduate in four years in roughly a quarter of the 95 programs surveyed at UH Manoa. University of Hawaii Manoa

At UH Manoa a “velocity” consultant is tasked with helping individual programs analyze what’s causing students to take longer than four years to graduate, said Reed Dasenbrock, vice chancellor of academic affairs.

In some instances, it might be that a course isn’t being offered frequently enough or that there are too many requirements to graduate. Ultimately, though — regardless of what research may indicate about a program — it will be up to the faculty and individual units to determine how the findings are used in developing curriculum, university spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said.

Nationwide, students have an average of 134 credits when they graduate — about 14 more than most programs require.

UH declined to provide data that would identify individual programs. The university is still developing and implementing its “program velocity” tracking system, Meisenzahl said.

“To single out certain units for success and/or what could be perceived a failure when it comes to moving students through a program in a timely manner would seriously impair the purpose of the program,” Meisenzahl said.

But providing information on how long it takes most students to graduate from individual programs is crucial to helping families make decisions about higher education, said Schneider, of the American Institutes for Research.

Colleges in a half-dozen states are now reporting program-level “time to graduation,” including Texas, Florida, Tennessee, Colorado and Minnesota, he said.

In Texas, the numbers have been illuminating, Schneider said, showing, for example, that it takes longer to get a degree in history than a degree in economics.

“This is fundamentally important information that every student should have access to,” he said.

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