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Staying on the horse

By Eric Swedlund
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
November 18, 1999
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Melanie Martinez is one of about 1,000 students who chose not to return to the UA for a second year this fall.

Martinez, 18, started as a freshman last spring after graduating high school a semester early. She dropped out midway through the semester, simply because she decided the University of Arizona wasn't for her.

"I didn't like the atmosphere," Martinez said. "I didn't like the focus. Too much emphasis is put on frats and sports."

Now, she works about 50 hours a week between her two jobs and takes classes at Pima Community College.

"The UA attracts a bizarre student body," she said. "Some people are here for specific programs, some are here for the jock school."

Martinez said she is happy with her decision and has no plans to return.

"The university isn't for everyone. I just didn't like it," she said. "That's me."

On the rise

Despite a trend over the past decade of increasing graduation and retention rates, UA officials agree that many improvements still need to be made.

Between 1985 and 1998, first-year retention rates have increased slightly, from 74 percent to 77 percent.

Six-year graduation rates have increased steadily as well during that time, from 47 percent to 53 percent. Four-year graduation rates have increased from 17 percent to 27 percent over that time.

In the past 10 years, the number of honor students at the UA increased from 842 to 3,920.

"We don't compare favorably in the Pac-10 for retention rates," said UA President Peter Likins.

The California public university system, for example, has much tougher admission requirements. "They don't give you a shot," Likins said.

The Arizona State Legislature has taken the philosophy of having relatively low tuition rates and admission standards in order to typically admit a wider variety of students.

"Our universities are wonderfully accessible, even if a student's academic ability wasn't demonstrated in high school," Likins said. "We have kind of a cowboy culture in the sense that anybody can get on the horse, but a lot of people will get bucked off."

The UA has the second-lowest in-state tuition - $2,158 - among the 32 public Association of American Universities schools, and the fourth-lowest non-resident tuition - $9,110.

In 1998, 80 percent of undergraduate applicants were admitted to the UA.

Likins said the UA can improve graduation and retention rates, but it is more difficult because the higher education philosophy in Arizona is to give more students a chance with lower admission standards and tuition.

"We can work our way up that hill, but it's a steeper climb," he said. "If we wanted to improve graduation rates, the easy thing to do would be stiffen admission standards, but we don't want to do that. We're proud of the fact that we give more students a chance."

Rick Kroc, director of the Office of Curricular and Enrollment Research, said over the past few years, the average time taken to graduate from the UA has "significantly decreased," from 5 to 4.85 years.

"We're doing pretty well - that doesn't mean we can't do better," Kroc said. "Our intention is to keep improving."

Kroc cited a new general education curriculum and admissions requirements, as well as programs such as Finish in Four and Courses in Common, as factors in the retention increase over the past few years.

The new admissions standards require more high school course work, raising from 11 to 16 years of pre-college education, Kroc said.

Since 1993, the mean high school grade point average of incoming freshmen has increased from 3.20 to 3.32. Over that same period, mean SAT scores for incoming freshmen increased from 1089 to 1106.

"If we can continue on that trajectory, I'd like to see (retention rates) even higher. The students we are keeping are better prepared to succeed in subsequent years," Kroc said. "But the ultimate test is graduating."

Arizona Board of Regents President Hank Amos said the state is always trying to make improvements for the universities and refine the system.

"In the last few years, there has been a focus on those things (graduation and retention rates) and I know the university is working hard," he said. "We're starting to see the results, but there's always room for improvement."

Christine Thompson, student member of the Board of Regents and UA law student, said the university has a "hugely diverse population of people."

"The UA lets almost anybody come here. We need to keep our doors open to a diverse group of people," she said. "We also need to recognize the university system isn't for everybody."

"It's really fantastic to see those numbers (retention and graduation rates) on the rise," she added.

Sylvia Mioduski, director of the University Learning Center, said the center supports the Freshman Year Study Center, which is a free weeknight tutoring program open to students enrolled in entry level courses in math, science, composition, general education and Spanish.

"It's very consistent," she said. "We see steady traffic."

This is the third year of the program, which serves about 95 percent freshmen, and it has been very successful, Mioduski said.

"Students who take advantage (of the programs offered) tend to do better," she said. "It's a contributing factor that supports retention."

Martinez said she didn't experience problems with advising, other than having to wait too long, and she made a point to talk to her professors.

"I knew the resources, I didn't use them," Martinez said. "The university publicizes what is available."

Now, she is taking baking, introduction to restaurant management and sign language at PCC.

"I think the university recognizes it's not for everyone. I don't see what they could change," Martinez said. "It's more of a matter of individual effort."

Likins said the UA has the unique challenge of instructing students with a wide variety of academic abilities.

"This university has some of the brightest students in the country," he said. "We have an enormous spectrum of students coming in each fall. Our challenge is to reach out to those who aren't ready and at the same time cater to brilliant students."

"I am also concerned that a lot of students work 30 hours a week and are stressing themselves tremendously because they don't have the money (to focus on academics alone)," Likins said.

The Integrated Learning Center

Excavation on the Integrated Learning Center, a below-grade freshman facility on the east end of the UA Mall, was completed last week. For three months, workers for Hydro-Metrics worked through the night to dig a 30 foot deep hole over the 85,994 square-foot area.

Over the next few months, the gaping hole in front of the main library will begin to take shape as workers shore up the outer walls and pour concrete for the floors, walls and walkways.

The $20.3 million facility is scheduled for completion in January 2001. The building will house four multimedia lecture halls, four classrooms, six discussion rooms, 400 computers, as well as advising services.

"It will be a home-base for freshmen," Mioduski said.

Mioduski added that the ILC will offer "one-stop shopping" for freshmen, including courses, faculty, tutoring, advising and library access.

Thompson said when she was a freshman eight years ago, it was extremely difficult to figure out where to go, and she was often pointed in many directions.

"The students will be able to feel more at ease," she said.

Likins said the ILC will provide a place for students to hang out and study.

"The ILC is the physical facility response to the challenge of turning freshmen into sophomores," he said.

Likins said students should "weather the storm together" and he hopes the students will bond to each other and the ILC.

"Most students have some shocks and setbacks when they get here," he said. "If you're alone, you can think 'my God, I can't do it.'"

Amos said the ILC will be an asset to the UA and offer a lot to freshmen.

"Obviously we wouldn't have passed it if it wasn't a good idea," he said. "It will be a good program."

Aguilar said the ILC will be a positive step to increasing retention rates.

"The ILC will work in some ways," he said. "It will be a central location, and freshmen will have everything they need there."

Wright said the ILC will help by offering freshmen a place to get most things they need at once.

"I think freshmen centers are good - they can work," he said. "It can be very positive. Students can get information there that they couldn't get anywhere else."

Vasquez was on the original committee that began planning for the ILC.

"This is a huge community, and it's important that students be able to find a place to get information and not be sent all over the university," she said. "(The ILC) will be a big help."

"It will be a focal point, but not all-encompassing," she said. "It is not meant to isolate freshmen."

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