LSU’s graduation rate at all-time high ... again

For the third year in a row LSU has notched an all-time high graduation rate, with 69.1 percent of students walking away from the university with a degree in hand the highest graduation rate out of all public universities in the state.

LSU saw 66.7 percent of eligible students graduate the prior year.

The rates are determined by calculating the number of first-time freshmen who complete school within six continuous years at the same institution.

It means that LSU had its most successful period ever in enrolling students in 2007 and shepherding them through to graduation by the end of 2013.

LSU’s numbers were calculated internally and won’t be official until they are validated by the State Board of Regents. Public colleges and universities are not required to submit their numbers to the Regents until later in the year, meaning LSU’s figures can’t yet be compared with those of other schools.

The Regents confirmed that preliminary information indicates LSU’s graduation rate is tops in the state among public institutions.

LSU’s numbers represent a dramatic shift from 20 years ago when the university’s graduation rate was 44.2 percent.

LSU President and Baton Rouge Chancellor F. King Alexander said Tuesday that LSU also graduated its second-largest class in history during the 2012-13 academic year, with 6,093 students walking away with diplomas.

“It means that our faculty and staff are doing an excellent job despite challenging economic times for education,” Alexander said. “We are serving our students better than we ever had in the past.”

LSU’s rising graduation rate is good news in a state where education policy has shifted from trying to enroll as many students as possible, to today’s reality in which schools are judged on how well they serve the students they have.

A large portion of the money public universities get from the state is tied to how well they retain students from year to year and how many students earn a degree within six years of enrolling at a four-year school.

The 2010 LA GRAD Act is a set of 52 benchmarks based on student success. The law ties 15 percent of overall state funding for each college on meeting student retention and graduation targets. Schools that hit the marks also get authorization to raise tuition by 10 percent.

LSU’s improving graduation rate also bodes well for students entering an economy that is generally more rewarding for graduates with advanced degrees, Alexander said.

“This is a time when graduating from a university has never meant more to a student; a college degree is at an all-time premium,” Alexander said. “The economic opportunities of a college dropout have never been worse.”

Although many of LSU’s recent gains predate Alexander, he previously developed a reputation for increasing graduation rates at his last stop as president of California State University in Long Beach.

On Tuesday, Alexander said improving graduation rates on a macro level is all about “constantly stressing the significance and importance of graduation to our students and their parents.”

However, on the micro level, Alexander said it comes down to a number of different steps including tracking data so that schools can find which students are falling behind and why. That approach gives schools an opportunity to target resources to the needed areas.

Alexander said it’s also up to individual faculty members to identify which students are struggling and have stopped coming to class.

That type of personal touch allows schools to put together intervention plans for students, increasing the likelihood they stay in school, he said.

Mandatory advising is another strategy Alexander is fond of. It requires first-time students to consult with an adviser before signing up for classes.

“It’s not one or two things; it’s 25 things,” Alexander said. “I wish there was a magic program but there isn’t. It’s a campuswide effort.”

LSU’s record-setting 2013 academic year eclipsed the previous two high-water marks the university set in 2012 and 2011 with graduation rates of 66.7 percent and 61.9 percent, respectively.

Tuesday’s announcement also means LSU has managed to increase the number of students who earn degrees by nearly 10 percent since 2010 when the graduation rate was calculated at 60.5 percent.

The achievement puts it on track to reach the goals spelled out in the “Flagship 2020: LSU Transforms Lives” plan first unveiled in 2010. Among the goals of the Flagship 2020 campaign were improving graduation rates, increasing research activity, striving for more diversity and raising the university’s level of community involvement.

At the time, LSU had increased its graduation rate by more than 20 percentage points over the past two decades, eventually graduating 60 percent of its students. Then-Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Jack Hamilton said the goal was to eventually hit 70 percent.

On Tuesday, LSU Board of Supervisors Chairman Bobby Yarborough called the year-after-year improvement a testament to LSU’s worth to the state as an institution of higher education

“Maintaining our academic standards while improving our graduation rates goes to show the value that LSU has,” he said. “I am very happy to see this on an upswing, considering this is an area our board has had great interest in ... I feel like it’s going to get even better.