UW-Madison’s 2018-’19 graduating class finished their degrees in an average of just under four years — the lowest average graduation time since the university began tracking the numbers in the ‘80s, according to a press release.
Last year’s class graduated in an average of 3.96 years, the first time the measure has dropped below four years, the release said. UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said this decrease means less money spent on college tuition.
“This is excellent news for Wisconsin families concerned about the cost of higher education,” Blank said in the release. “We know that students who take longer than four years often accrue additional debt.”
The most recent UW System data places four-year graduation rates at 40.1 percent for students who entered college in 2014, placing a four-year graduation in 2018. This is an improvement from the 2013 average of 38.1 percent and the 2012 average of 36.2 percent, but rates drop further when broken down by demographics.
Among the class who entered the UW System in 2014, less than a quarter — 22.6 percent — of students from underrepresented groups graduated within four years. A slightly higher rate of students who received federal income-based Pell Grants graduated in four years at 27.5 percent.
However, both of these percentages have been rising. Students from underrepresented groups entering the UW System in 2012 only had a 19.3 percent four-year graduation rate, which grew to 20.8 percent the next year. Percentages of students receiving Pell Grants finishing school in four years also rose from 24.2 percent in 2012 to 25.7 percent for 2013.
UW-Madison’s average time-to-degree for the 2018-’19 graduating class has been steadily declining, according to the press release. Graduates from the class of 2017-’18 had an average time of 4.01 years, and 2016-’17 graduates’ average was 4.03 years.
UW-Madison Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning Steve Cramer told Wisconsin Public Radio that while the drops may seem small, when talking about student populations like Madison’s, it means the university is doing its job.
“It’s a steady decline," Cramer said. "Are they like huge jumps? Of course not. We’re talking about averages over 6,000 some students. So, even small changes in these numbers represent significant improvement and more importantly the trend is in the right direction."
Of UW-Madison’s eight undergraduate schools and colleges, the Wisconsin School of Business had the quickest time-to-degree in 2018-’19 at 3.77 years, according to university data. The longest was the School of Education at 4.48 years.
The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the Wisconsin School of Business, the School of Human Ecology and the College of Letters & Science — UW-Madison’s largest college — all had average graduation times under four years for 2018-’19. The School of Education, the College of Engineering, the School of Nursing and the School of Pharmacy all had averages over four years.
Both UW-Madison and UW System have been working to communicate the benefits of graduating sooner.
“This has been a concerted, campus-wide effort over many years and involving many facets, tools and programs,” UW-Madison Provost John Karl Scholz said in the press release. “It’s a group effort with everyone pulling in the same direction so that students have the resources they need to graduate — and to do so in a timely manner.”
Over the summer, the UW System launched the “15 to Finish” campaign to encourage students to take 15 credits each semester. Students who took 30 credits or more in their first year were more likely to graduate, according to System data included in the initial press release.
These programs also can help the universities themselves grow revenue as well, since quicker graduations means more open spots for new students and new tuition dollars, according to WPR.
“If students graduate in less time, it means for the capacity that we have at this campus, we can graduate more students and get more students graduated and out into the workforce,” Cramer said. “It’s just more efficient."