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Tech Addressing Graduation Rates

SOCORRO, N.M. December 9, 2015 – New Mexico Tech faculty, staff and administrators are unveiling a series of new efforts designed to improve the university’s four-year graduation rate. At the November 30 meeting, the Board of Regents heard about the range of efforts being employed to help students.

“The Committee for Accelerating Graduation has identified a range of actions that will positively impact Tech’s four-year graduation rate. They selected the most promising ones to get started and to be fully implemented in 2016,” Dr. Warren Ostergren, Vice President for Academic Affairs, said at the Regents meeting.

The university has already increased tutoring support, redesigned several courses and increasingly emphasized the Student Research Symposium. Tech found improved retention through the “Living-Learning Community” program, which was introduced five years ago. That program has freshmen join research teams for a year-long project and live on the same dorm floor. Since that program started, university administrators saw that students involved in that program were more likely to return for their sophomore year than other students.

Building on that success, Tech has rebranded the LLC program as “Project-Based Learning Communities,” and will expand the offerings. These team projects will be available to all freshmen, instead of just 25 percent, in 2016.

Over the past year, New Mexico Tech has been approaching the issue in a typically Techie manner – with identifying the relevant inputs, gathering data and proposing a series of solutions.

Ostergren formed a committee to identify additional approaches for accelerating graduation.  The committee implemented a Six Sigma approach, which is the standard used by outstanding industrial companies like GE and Boeing, to improve productivity and minimize waste. The approach is data driven and utilizes specific methods and techniques. The committee included key administrative and staff members and gathered critical inputs from faculty, students, alumni and employers.

In his annual priorities submitted to the Board of Regents, university president Dr. Daniel H. Lopez for many years has included improved third-semester retention – a key marker for student success – as one of his goals. Over the years, the Faculty Senate has also implemented curriculum and instruction changes to address retention and graduation rates.

The issue has become more public over the past year since Gov. Susana Martinez issued a mandate to universities to improve their performance in getting students to finish degrees quicker. To compound the issue, four-year graduation rates have become an increasingly important part of the state’s effort to reduce the cost of baccalaureate degrees for students taking more than four years to graduate.

Ostergren recently presented a report on New Mexico Tech’s progress to the Secretary of the Higher Education Department Barbara Damron in Santa Fe. Along with President Lopez and Regents Deborah Peacock and David Gonzales, they updated Damron and other state officials on the progress being made at Tech.

The Six Sigma analysis confirmed two things that Tech professors have known for years – success in entry level courses is vital and math preparation prior to entering school at Tech is a key metric. To that end, Tech professors are redesigning certain 100-level courses like math and physics with an eye on improving student engagement, without watering down the rigor.

Tech, along with the other universities and colleges in New Mexico, wants to modernize the gen-ed courses. We are looking at a bottom-up approach – have those involved in the gen-ed core on a task force to guide how we go about doing this.

Tech is also reaching into high schools and community colleges to improve math readiness. Tech has strong interactions with San Juan Community College in Farmington and Santa Fe Community College and is building relationships with New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell and New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, both of which are sending more and more transfers to Tech.

Tech also has a robust Distance Education division and intends to steadily expand its offerings of math courses to high school students in rural areas and to offer critical engineering classes to community college students. Coupled with flowcharts on required courses, this will allow students to reduce time at Tech by up to a year.

In a further effort to improve four-year graduation rates, Tech is reducing the minimum number of credits required to graduate to 120. The Faculty Senate approved the reduction in the minimum requirement; so that each academic department will be able to set its own requirement. Certain departments have already reduced their required credits to 120; however, it is expected that some departments, like engineering departments, will improve efficiency, but continue to require more than 120 credit hours because of their many labs and design clinic courses.

Several professors addressed the Board of Regents during the meeting. Faculty Senate president Dr. Dave Raymond presented an official statement from the Senate. He said that the education offered at Tech is notably characterized by its breadth and depth. Students who earn a bachelor’s degree at Tech are prepared to be leaders and are well-rounded citizens. He said the faculty is very concerned that the quality of education at Tech not be diminished.

Dr. Ken Minschwaner, professor of physics, said, “One thing we are proud of is the way our graduates can compete for good jobs and grad schools.”

Dr. Steve Simpson, associate professor of communication, said. “It’s important to remember that 120 is a minimum. If we bring all degrees to a bare minimum, that could cripple those programs and make them not as competitive nationally.”

Simpson said that, across the nation, the average credit hours required for a bachelor’s in technical communications is 121. However, he said the average nationally for an engineering degree is around 128 credit hours.

Simpson’s department – Communication, Liberal Arts and Social Science – has decided to reduce its requirements to 120 credit hours. The Math Department has also gone to the 120 hour minimum.

Each member of the Board of Regents commented positively toward the Six Sigma initiative at Tech and toward the comments from the Faculty Senate representatives.

Regent David Gonzales, who earned a degree from Tech in 2008, said, “From my perspective, the brand of New Mexico Tech is important and we don’t want to become a run-of-the-mill engineering school. It looks bad to just cut credit hour requirements. This is our analytical approach. There are many other significant factors [apart from credit hours] that impact time to graduation.”

Regent Myissa Weiss, who is a current student studying mechanical engineering student, said students would not support an across-the-board reduction in credit-hour requirements.

“Students do support fighting back against cutting everything to 120,” she said. “Everyone is willing to stay for 130 credit-hours to get that New Mexico Tech brand degree.”

– NMT –