Graduation Rates Remain Low at Nevada’s Four-Year Colleges

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Graduating students smiling and laughing with diplomas; trees in background

This weekend, commencement exercises will take place at both of Nevada’s largest universities, University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) and University of Nevada, Reno (UNR). Nevada State College held its graduation last Saturday. Yet, these events in Nevada are cause for celebration for fewer students than elsewhere in the U.S. The number of students earning their bachelors degrees from these institutions remains far below the national average and also lower than many of the public colleges and universities in the Intermountain West.

Four-Year Graduation Rate

 According to U.S. News & World Report, UNLV has a four-year graduation rate of 14 percent, UNR has a four-year graduation rate of 21 percent and Nevada State College has a four-year graduation rate of just 5 percent.

Figure 1 compares the graduation rates, student-teacher ratios, acceptance rates and total student enrollment of the state’s three public four-year colleges with data from the other public colleges and universities in the Intermountain West.

Figure 1: Overview of State Colleges and Universities in the Intermountain West

  4-Year Graduation Rate Student-Teacher Ratio Acceptance Rate (2014) TotalEnrollment
Nevada State College 5% N/A 61.9% 3,549
University of Nevada, Las Vegas 14% 22:1 86.9% 28,525
University of Nevada, Reno 21% 22:1 83.9% 19,934
Arizona State University –Tempe 43% 22:1 84.3% 39,968
Northern Arizona University 33% 19:1 90.5% 27,715
University of Arizona 40% 22:1 74.6% 42,236
Colorado Mesa University 16% 13:1 82.3% 9,116
Colorado School of Mines 42% 16:1 36.5% 5,795
Colorado State University – Fort Collins 39% 16:1 80.5% 31,449
Colorado State University – Pueblo 16% 16:1 92.8% 7,256
Fort Lewis College 18% 19:1 90.8% 3,776
Metropolitan State Univ. of Denver 5% N/A 65.2% 21,674
University of Colorado – Boulder 46% 18:1 84.2% 32,080
University of CO – Colorado Springs 27% 15:1 92.4% 11,463
University of Colorado – Denver 15% 16:1 73.0% 22,791
University of Northern Colorado 27% 17:1 70.9% 11,784
Western State Colorado University 19% 17:1 97.4% 2,581
New Mexico
NM Institute of Mining and Technology 22% 12:1 36.4% 2,127
New Mexico State University 16% 16:1 69.6% 15,829
University of New Mexico 21% 15:1 46.1% 27,887
Dixie State University 12% 20:1 100% 8,570
Southern Utah University 20% 18:1 63.3% 7,756
University of Utah 24% 17:1 81.4% 31,515
Utah State University 23% 22:1 97.8% 27,662
Utah Valley University 11% 22:1 99.9% 31,332
Weber State University 12% 20:1 100% 25,954

Arizona is home to two of the region’s universities with the highest graduation rate within four years, Arizona State University and the University of Arizona, with rates of 43 and 40 percent respectively. The highest overall graduation rate of 46 percent belongs to the University of Colorado – Boulder. These rates are double—or nearly double—that of UNR and triple that of UNLV.

Tied for the lowest graduation rate within four years of 5 percent are Nevada State College and Metropolitan State University of Denver. Both of these schools are considered commuter colleges, as neither offers on-campus housing for students, and both schools have a considerable number of part-time students. (These two factors would likely lower the number of students able to graduate in four years.) Nevada State reports that 61 percent of its students are part-time, significantly more than the 40 percent at Metropolitan State.

Both schools are also identified as serving students from diverse backgrounds. At Nevada State College,50 percent of its students come from a culturally diverse background and 51 percent are first-generation college students. As such, the U.S. Department of Education has identified the school as a Minority Serving Institution. In addition, after having completed two steps in the application process already, Nevada State College announced that it will apply for the federal designation of Hispanic- Serving Institution. Roughly 34 percent of students at Metropolitan State University identify as non-white. Excelencia in Education, the Hispanic-Serving Institutions Center for Policy and Practice, has named both schools as Emerging Hispanic-Serving Institutions.

Long-held as the state’s only top-tier research university, UNR has a graduation rate considerably lower than the other universities in the Intermountain West who share the same distinction. The school is ranked 187th on the U.S. News & World Report list of the best national universities. According to the publication, “Schools in the National Universities category, such as Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania, offer a full range of undergraduate majors, plus master’s and doctoral programs. These colleges also are committed to producing groundbreaking research.”

Figure 2 compares UNR’s graduation rate and ranking with the other universities in the region on the list.

Figure 2: Graduation Rates for Best National Universities in the Intermountain West

University Ranking Graduation Rate
University of Nevada, Reno 199th 21%
Arizona State University 129th 43%
University of Arizona 121st 40%
Colorado State University – Fort Collins 127th 27%
University of Colorado – Boulder 89th 46%
New Mexico State University 199th 16%
University of New Mexico 180th 21%
University of Utah 115th 24%

Unsurprisingly, the University of Colorado – Boulder has both the highest graduation rate and the highest ranking on the list at 89th. The lowest-ranked university, New Mexico State University, at 199th, has a lower graduation rate than UNR at 16 percent. However, New Mexico is home to a second top-tier school, the University of New Mexico, which has a 21 percent graduation rate, equal to UNR.

With the exception of Utah and Nevada, all the other states in the Intermountain West have two universities that are ranked on this list.

Within the next two decades, UNLV aims to join UNR as a top-tier research university. Senate Bill 514, passed during the last legislative session, took two steps to enhance the university’s standings. First, the bill appropriated $26.7 million for a medical school at UNLV. The bill also seeks to expand graduate medical education: the bill includes $5 million annually for start-up grants to begin residency and fellowship programs. It also includes $1.9 million in FY2016 and $2 million in FY2017 for NSHE to expand public undergraduate and graduate medical education, as the Guinn Center reported last year.

During the Southern Nevada Forum last week, legislators presented policy recommendations to more than 200 local government officials, business leaders and other community members. Among them were proposals to add $17.1 million to the UNLV School of Medicine’s base budget and an additional $10 million to fund program development in graduate medical education. These funds would drive the push to make UNLV a top-tier school.

Six-Year Graduation Rate

 Another common metric for comparing colleges is the six-year graduation rates, which the all colleges and universities are required to report to the U.S. Department of Education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average graduation rate within six years is 59 percent.

Once again, Nevada’s four year higher education institutions remain below par at 46 percent, 13 percent lower than the national average, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education’s report on college completion. UNLV’s six-year graduation rate is 43 percent, UNR’s rate is 51 percent and Nevada State College’s rate is 13.8 percent.

Figure 3 compares the Figure 1 compares the six-year graduation rates of the state’s three public four-year colleges with data from the other public colleges and universities in the Intermountain West.

Figure 3: Six-Year Graduation Rates of Universities in the Intermountain West

  6-Year Graduation Rate
Nevada (Overall) 46%
Nevada State College 14%
University of Nevada, Las Vegas 43%
University of Nevada, Reno 51%
Arizona (Overall) 58%
Arizona State University –Tempe 60%
Northern Arizona University 49%
University of Arizona 61%
Colorado (Overall) 53%
Colorado Mesa University 33%
Colorado School of Mines 70%
Colorado State University – Fort Collins 64%
Colorado State University – Pueblo 33%
Fort Lewis College 37%
Metropolitan State Univ. of Denver N/A
University of Colorado – Boulder 70%
University of CO – Colorado Springs 46%
University of Colorado – Denver 41%
University of Northern Colorado 46%
Western State Colorado University 42%
New Mexico (Overall) 42%
NM Institute of Mining and Technology 44%
New Mexico State University 43%
University of New Mexico 48%
Utah (Overall) 47%
Dixie State University 18%
Southern Utah University 41%
University of Utah 60%
Utah State University 51%
Utah Valley University 22%
Weber State University 43%

The six-year graduation rates follow a similar pattern to the four-year graduation rates. Among the Intermountain West states, Nevada has the second-lowest graduation rate with 46 percent within six years. Only lower is New Mexico with 42 percent. The highest rate is Arizona with 58 percent, followed by Colorado with 54 percent. All of the states in the region have six-year graduation rates below the national average.

The top five public universities in the nation with the highest six-year graduation rates are shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Six-Year Graduation Rates of the Top Five Public Universities

University 6-Year Graduation Rate
University of Virginia 93%
University of California at Berkeley 91%
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 90%
University of Michigan at Ann Arbor 90%
University of Florida 87%

Policy Recommendations:

Nevada’s lawmakers could consider the following policy recommendations as possibilities for helping to bolster the state’s three public colleges:

  • Create more scholarships and grants for students attending four-year colleges. As The Wall Street Journal and countless others have reported, the cost of college is often a factor in students’ decision to drop out. This is especially true for low-income and minority students. By reducing the financial burden college tuition places on students and families, Nevada could help more students earn their degrees. Currently, the Nevada State Treasurer offers merit-based The Kenny C. Guinn Millennium Scholarship to graduating high school seniors who meet certain grade point average (G.P.A.) and coursework requirements. In 2015, the Nevada Legislature created the Silver State Opportunity Grant (Senate Bill 227), the state’s first ever need-based scholarship program, which provides assistance to low-income students attending Nevada State College and community colleges. Having a similar program for four-year colleges could help students afford the cost of a four-year degree.
  • Provide more college readiness programs for high school students and support for students in college. Programs such as Upward Bound provide support to high school students from low-income families and students from families in which neither parent holds a bachelor’s degree. The program, which is currently available on all three of Nevada’s public college campuses, provides tutoring, SAT and ACT prep, and information on financial aid. As the Center for Academic Enrichment and Outreach at UNLV reported, 98 percent of local students who participated in the program achieved proficiency level on state assessments in reading and math.
  • Create a framework for college readiness. Last year, a task force under the West Comprehensive Center and the Nevada Department of Education published the report, “College and Career Readiness for Students,” which recommended implementing new academic and critical thinking / problem solving standards that all students graduating from Nevada public schools should be able to demonstrate. These new standards would likely contribute to greater student success on the ACT, a college entrance exam that all students in Nevada are required to take. In 2015, a meager 8 percent earned ACT scores considered “college ready.” Students who are identified as college ready are less likely to need remedial courses in college. As the National Conference of State Legislatures reported, “Students in remedial reading or math have particularly dismal chances of success. A U.S. Department of Education study found that 58 percent of students who do not require remediation earn a bachelor’s degree, compared to only 17 percent of students enrolled in re­medial reading and 27 percent of students enrolled in remedial math.”
  • Provide more support in K-12 for students, including wraparound services at schools in low-income areas. Last year, the Nevada approved $21 million to fund Victory Schools (SB432), which allows struggling Title I schools to provide more expansive wraparound services to students. Almost all of the 24 schools in Clark County given Victory School funds reported double- and triple-digit gains in math and English. Having more students exit school truly ready for college-level coursework could increase the likelihood that they could handle a full course load that would enable them to graduate college on time.