Good news on student outcomes

It is good to see evidence of the positive impact of our efforts to improve student outcomes. A few weeks ago we received the latest data from the Office of Academic Planning and Institutional Research (APIR) that shows ongoing progress in graduation rates. Some highlights:

  • For the fourth year in a row, our freshman-sophomore retention rate is more than 95 percent. This fall’s figure of 95.4 percent is more than three percentage points higher than our peer average of 92 percent. The number is even better for students in our targeted minority groups, where the retention rate is 95.7 percent.
  • It’s also worth noting that our freshman class is one of the most diverse that we’ve ever enrolled:
    • 11.2 percent are targeted minorities while 18.2 percent are students of color.
    • 16.7 percent are first-generation students and 8.6 percent are international students.
  • Our four-year graduation rate is 60.7 percent and our six-year bachelor’s degree rate is 85.2 percent. Our most recent peer averages are 59 percent and 80 percent, respectively.
  • Graduation rates for students in our targeted minority groups are 10 percentage points lower than the overall rate (75.2 percent compared to 85.2 percent overall). The gap in six-year graduation rates has narrowed from a 16.5 percentage point gap five years ago to a 10 percentage point gap today, and making sure that this gap continues to decrease is a high priority.

These rates reflect only students who start their college careers at UW-Madison and stay here through graduation. Supplemental data shows that for those who start at UW-Madison about 90 percent graduate with a four-year degree from any school (data that is only available with a lag), adding about 2 points to the UW-Madison four-year graduation rate and about 5 points to the six-year graduation rate.

Overall, our time to degree has fallen from 4.13 elapsed calendar years (the time between the first day of school as a new freshman at UW-Madison to their commencement date) last year to 4.07 for the graduates in 2015-16. This is our lowest average time to degree in the 25 years we have tracked this indicator. Until this year, our average time to degree was slightly higher than our peers. The gap has closed so that we are now almost the same as our peers.

The longer students are enrolled, the higher their costs — both the direct costs of instruction (tuition, room, board, etc.) and the opportunity costs (lost income from work or delayed entrance to graduate school, for example). Students who are enrolled longer consume more student support and financial aid resources. Helping students graduate as fast as possible reduces their debt at graduation and allows our limited institutional grant dollars to support as many students as possible.

A big reason for these outstanding student outcomes is the focus among our faculty and staff on student success and ongoing focus on the quality of the educational experience. The positive trends also show that the investment we’ve made in academic advising over the past several years, and our systematic efforts to give attention to factors that promote progress to degree (such as timely major declaration, enforcing course prerequisites) is paying off.

That we are doing this in an era of rising enrollment and tightening budgets is remarkable. It shows a commitment to providing students with the best educational value at a world-class university, and is obviously good news for students and parents concerned about post-graduation debt. I am thankful for the efforts of faculty, staff and, of course, our brilliant students. I hope you all take as much pride in this as I do. For a deeper dive into the retention and graduation rates and time to degree data, visit the APIR website, at