President launches initiative to open doors, reduce time to graduation

UO President Michael Schill on Tuesday announced an ambitious $17 million initiative to raise the university’s four-year graduation rate by 10 percentage points over five years, a change that will shave tens of thousands of dollars off the cost of a college degree for many students.

In his first all-campus address, Schill outlined the Oregon Commitment, an access and success plan modeled on the successful PathwayOregon program. The plan could dramatically reduce the number of students who take more than four years to earn a bachelor’s degree, effectively slashing costs for students and their families.

Estimates put the cost of taking more than four years to earn a degree at more than $25,000 a year for tuition, fees and living costs plus the lost earnings from a delayed career start. For many students, being able to complete a degree in four years is best strategy for cutting the cost of a college education, Schill said.

“The best strategy to reduce the cost of college is to ensure that more of our students will graduate on time," the president said.”Every (additional) quarter a student takes to graduate adds hundreds, even thousands, of dollars to their college bill."

That's where the Oregon Commitment comes in.

"I am setting a goal to increase our graduation rate by at least 10 percentage points by 2020. This is the Oregon Commitment," Schill said. "Today, I am announcing a series of new initiatives and investments totaling $17 million over five years to support this ambitious goal."

The full text of the president’s remarks is available here. A video of the appearance is here.

The Oregon Commitment outlines investments to enhance financial, academic, curricular and extracurricular programs to support student access and success. The investments are made possible by funds from the Oregon Legislature, federal Pell Grant student aid and philanthropy.

The president plans to build on the successful model pioneered by PathwayOregon, which leverages state and federal aid to guarantee that qualifying Oregon students can attend the UO with all of their tuition and fees covered. The program’s combination of financial and academic support, Schill said, is the key to putting more diplomas in students’ hands in less time and therefore at significantly lower cost.

Schill said that even though the UO’s four-year graduation rate of 49 percent is the highest of all public universities in the state, it needs to be better.

“We know that not every student will graduate in four years,” Schill said, noting that some programs are designed to take five years. “But when half our students don’t graduate in four years, we absolutely must, as an institution, examine why, and then we must tear those barriers down.”

The president, addressing a standing-room crowd of more than 500 in the EMU ballroom, outlined a seven-point plan to boost the four-year graduation rate. It starts with supporting pipeline programs, such as the UO’s SAIL program, to help students from pre-kindergarten through high school realize the dream of a college education.

Schill also will work to attract more funding for scholarships and financial aid, and he will increase spending on advising and tutoring programs to help keep students in school and graduate them on time. That includes a review of class schedules and curriculum and degree requirements with an eye toward removing any barriers on the path to graduation.

The president said that thanks to increased support from the state, he also is establishing a new graduation completion grant program that will provide financial aid to more than 100 juniors and seniors at most risk of dropping out for financial reasons. The grants will help students who have exhausted other forms of aid.

Other steps include Schill’s previously announced goal of hiring more tenure-track faculty. He also is considering a tuition guarantee program that would lock in a tuition amount for four years for each new freshman class.

Finally, the president is looking for ways to expand student engagement programs such as the First-Year Interest Groups, academic residential communities, undergraduate research opportunities, study abroad and related activities. These programs help engage students in university life, support them academically and reduce the risk they will drop out.

“This promise of access and success for all of our students — the Oregon Commitment — is one that we must keep,” Schill said. “The economic and civic vitality of our state and our nation depends upon it. Students ... all across our campus must succeed.”

PathwayOregon’s success shows it can be used to help even more students, the president said. In addition to financial support, Pathway students also get strong support from academic advisors to help them choose majors, navigate course requirements, get tutoring and stay on track to graduate in four years.

The nationally recognized program has closed the UO’s graduation gap significantly for lower-income, under-represented minorities and first-generation students. Since it was launched in 2008, PathwayOregon has helped increase by 40 percent the number of students in the program who graduate within four years.

The program has helped more than 3,800 UO students and took a big leap forward this year thanks to a $25 million gift from Connie and Steve Ballmer. PathwayOregon is the subject of an in-depth, multimedia feature story, available here and in the upcoming issue of Oregon Quarterly.

The initiative is part of the president’s overall objectives for the university, which are to ensure access and success for Oregon students, build the UO’s academic and research programs through faculty hiring and deliver a rich academic experience for students. For more information, visit the president’s website.

—By Greg Bolt, Public Affairs Communications