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The Oregonian: Oregon public universities graduated 20,000 students in 2011-12, far exceeding the previous record
Author: Betsy Hammond
Posted: November 14, 2012

Read the original article in The Oregonian here.

Oregon's seven public universities graduated a record 20,000 students during 2011-12, fueled by an 11 percent increase in bachelor's degrees. 

That suggests the state is on track to meet one element of its ambitious goal to raise educational attainment levels: the drive to have 40 percent of young Oregonians hold a bachelor's degree by 2025. 

"It's great news, and it certainly helps demonstrate that we are getting on the right trajectory," said Ben Cannon, education adviser to Gov. John Kitzhaber. "It's certainly a reflection of the strategies we are pursing: increased enrollment, better retention and closer relationships between universities and community colleges." 

"Those are beginning to pay dividends. But we've still got a lot of headroom to do better." 

The main reason Portland State, the University of Oregon, Oregon State University and the state's four smaller public universities graduated more students: Beginning in about 2007, as the economy soured, they enrolled a lot more students, including more freshmen from Oregon, said Bob Kieran, assistant vice chancellor of institutional research and planning. 

The universities, particularly PSU and Western Oregon, also experienced a dramatic increase in students transferring in from community colleges to complete four-year degrees -- a trend university and community college officials say they have taken steps to strengthen. 

Universities also say they are taking steps to get more students to graduate on time. 

At Western, which saw the biggest percentage growth in bachelor's degrees -- 21 percent -- the 2012 graduates were the first to receive the "Western promise" that locked in tuition at the same rate for four years. That not only made it affordable to stay in college, it gave students a huge incentive to finish before much higher tuition kicked in, said Associate Provost David McDonald. 

At PSU, an initiative begun by the business college proved so successful it was expanded throughout the arts and sciences last academic year, said Robert Mercer, an assistant dean for advising and student success. Two terms before each student was to graduate, university officials checked their transcripts and planned courses to make sure they would earn a diploma. They contacted hundreds on track to end up a course or two short to encourage them to remake their schedules. 

As many as 300 who would not have graduated on schedule made changes and got their degrees, Mercer said. 

"It's exciting but also a little daunting to realize we need to do this kind of outreach systematically for all students, and how are we going to do that? But we are thrilled to see the increase in the number of graduates. There is no way to look at that and not see it as a positive." 

Officials noted that the surge in graduates meant more students emerged with degrees that make them highly employable, often in high-wage fields. 

True, a small surge of art history majors graduated at Portland State. But at Oregon State, the growth was primarily in engineers, business graduates and agriculture students. At Western, business, psychology, biology and chemistry all graduated significantly more students, McDonald said. 

At Portland State, more students earned degrees in speech and hearing science, languages such as Arabic and Russian, geology, urban planning and philosophy, which Mercer said is great preparation for law school. 

Amelia Harris of Portland, a senior and student body president at OSU, said it's obvious why more students are graduating: They are keenly aware how important it is to have a degree. 

But rising tuition and shrinking financial aid have left many with loads of debt or unable to finish, she said. Given how important it is to the state to generate more graduates, she said, they should rebuild the anemic Oregon Opportunity Grant program and put in enough tax money to slow tuition growth. 

"A college education is so important to students, but so many are not able to afford a public university degree," she said. "They are suffering, and those with so much debt are suffering." 

Having more students stay in college had plusses and minuses. At Western, labs are in high demand, so lab classes will run 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. five days a week until a new science building opens next fall, McDonald said. But larger upper-division classes last year -- typically 22 students instead of 18 -- made discussions and group projects richer and more varied, he said. 

At PSU, upper-division classes have gotten much bigger over the past several years, making it difficult for professors to assign and give feedback on long papers, Mercer said. That's the opposite of what is needed to create the stronger writers that employers want, he said. 

For Oregon to reach its goal of having 40 percent of young adults hold degrees, an increase of about 10 percentage points, public universities will need to award bachelor's degrees to an estimated 21,000 Oregonians a year 13 years from now, according to a study by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. That assumes that lots of college-educated young adults will keep moving here from other states, too. 

Even with this year's big increase in graduates, Oregon remains about 5,600 yearly college graduates short of the 2025 target. But the fact that the university system bumped up its bachelor's degree production by more than 1,500 in a single year suggests growth of 5,600 could be in reach. 

"It's doable," Cannon said. "This shows it is possible. Maintaining our focus will help us get there." 

 

PSU leads the way

6,039: Degrees Portland State University awarded in 2011-12, more than an other Oregon public university and 30 percent of the system's total

4,320: Bachelor's degrees awarded, up 10 percent from year before

1,654: Master's degrees awarded, down 8 percent largely because fewer students sought to become teachers as schools sharply cut hiring

65: Ph.D.s awarded, up 16 percent

Popular PSU majors

Liberal arts and sciences: 2,740 degrees in 2011-12, up 9 percent. Programs with most growth are environmental, geology, world languages, philosophy, speech and hearing science.

Fine and performing arts: 332 degrees, up 9 percent. Programs with most growth are architecture, art and art history.

Urban and public affairs: 764 degrees, up 18 percent. Programs with most growth are criminology and criminal justice, public administration, urban studies and planning

Source: Portland State University