Graduation rates: F&M lags behind liberal arts schools of similar size, caliber

Photo courtesy of Inside Higher Ed

By Alex Pinsk || Editor-in-chief

The graduation rate for colleges and universities nationwide is less than 50% in six years, according to Dr. Alan S. Caniglia, F&M’s Vice President for Strategic Initiatives & Acting Vice President for Finance and Administration. The numbers vary depending on an institution’s location, the number of students, status as private or public, demographics of the student body, financial concerns, and many other factors that dictate the trajectory and quality of the student experience. 

By national standards, Franklin & Marshall College excels with 86% of students graduating within six years. However, in comparison to small liberal arts schools with similar standards of academic excellence and student body makeup, F&M trails behind. Colleges similar to F&M have a 3-4% higher average graduation rate within six years, closer to 89-90%, with a few schools hitting the 95-96% mark, said Dr. Caniglia. 

In order to understand the reasoning behind F&M’s lower graduation rate, it is vital to trace the data back to the class year at which attrition suffers. Dr. Caniglia explained that at F&M, retention rate from the first to the second year is 91-92% which is about 3% less than the median of the top 50 national liberal arts colleges, and from the first to third year, the retention rate is about 87%. Evidently, if students come back to F&M for their third year, they are likely to graduate from the institution. Thus, what is significant and cause for scrutiny is attrition from the first to the second, and the second to the third, years.

In order to determine the reasoning behind F&M’s lower than average retention rate between the first and second year, it is first vital to look at the factors and discrepancies affecting the first year vs. those affecting the second. Universally, the first year of college is an adjustment period which often involves a completely new environment. At F&M, it means adapting to life in the Lancaster city area, a semi-urban environment, discovering the ins and outs of a smaller college and student body, and potentially moving away from home for the first time. The second year involves different experiences including declaring a major and selecting from new housing options. However, these are situations that theoretically should be relatively standard at most similar colleges, so the question is: why is F&M seeing lower attrition after that first year?

When asked about this, Dr. Caniglia mentioned that many students have health issues, family issues, and financial concerns throughout their college experiences. Students undergo “hurdles” at all colleges and universities that may stem from their disappointment with social environments or personal academic performance, he explained; however, these “hurdles” seem to happen “a little more often here at F&M than at other similar places.” The administration is looking closely at what the College can do to help students who hit barriers, whether that means new financial policies, wellness resources, or something else entirely. 

A few years back, “the quality of residential life was in fact not what it should be,” Dr. Caniglia explained, which led to the creation of the College House System in 2005. With this layer on residential life, graduation rates went up 3-4% and stayed up as a result. Thus, implementing community-driven aspects of housing and student life seemed to have played a positive role on the student experience overall.

To break this down a little further, it appears that students who are involved in Greek Life and athletic teams graduate at a higher rate on average than students who are not involved in those activities, Dr. Caniglia explained. Perhaps this goes back to the community aspect—if students feel as though they are connected with others and associated with a group, they are more likely to graduate from the institution. Another significant statistic is that women are more likely to graduate in six years than men by a few percentage points. Reasons for this are speculatory but largely unknown on a national level. 

When asked whether the financial state of the College appears to have an impact on graduation rate, Dr. Caniglia explained that F&M’s “financial situation is strong;” however, if it were stronger, there would be “better facilities in academic programs and better athletic facilities” as well. “We would be able to do even more with more resources,” he affirmed.

Ultimately, there are many possibilities as to why F&M is unable to keep up with many of its peer institutions with respect to graduation rate. Perhaps the College needs to develop better infrastructure to ensure students feel they are affiliated with the community at large or smaller communities within the student body. Or maybe a major part of the problem comes with F&M’s small endowment of $390 million (fandm.edu) compared with Dickinson’s $490 million (dickinson.edu), Lafayette’s $750 million (lafayette.edu), and Bucknell’s $850 million (bucknell.edu). With a larger endowment and funds, perhaps a greater number of students would receive financial aid packages without loans, leading to more financial security, and, thus, a higher likelihood of graduating from F&M. 

There are many questions being raised as to how F&M can raise its average graduation rate from the current 86% to 89-90%. “If you enhance the student experience, students are more likely to stay,” Dr. Caniglia concluded. F&M faculty and professional staff are continuing to examine ways in which to improve the student experience.

Of course, the impact that COVID-19 will have on graduation rates is at present unknown. Many individuals are sick, losing their jobs, and struggling with finances at this time. Colleges and universities have entered unprecedented territory and are working to the best of their ability to find ways in which students can continue to learn and be supported. 

Will colleges and universities be able to maintain support systems in the wake of COVID-19? Does F&M have the funds and means by which to maintain these support systems? Will graduation rates for the upcoming class years depend on that? Only time will tell. 

Senior Alex Pinsk is the Editor-in-Chief. Her email is mpinsk@fandm.edu.

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