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EDITORS: Please consider using the following essay by University of Iowa President Mary Sue Coleman on the issue of getting students through college in four years. If you want to use the essay and would like a photo of President Coleman, call University Relations, 319-335-0557.


Speeding Up the College Years

By Mary Sue Coleman

President, University of Iowa

Tax breaks, easier loans, part-time jobs - they all help, but one of the best ways for students to manage college costs is to finish in four years or less.

That's why we introduced a Four-Year Plan at The University of Iowa in 1995. It's a contract that spells out exactly what students have to do each semester to complete their programs, and guarantees that the university will provide the needed courses on schedule.

Just over half the 1995 entering class signed up. These students, who will be juniors this fall, are half a credit ahead of their non-plan counterparts in accumulating semester hours, and their grade point is almost a quarter-point higher. Right on their heels are the 1996 plan participants, who are also taking heavier course loads, earning higher grades, progressing faster than their non-plan counterparts - and saving the cost of that fifth year of tuition. And we expect the same results from the 53 percent of our 1997 entering freshmen who joined the program at summer orientation.

We can't be sure that all this progress is due to the plan itself. The participants are a self-selected, highly-motivated group who would have worked just as hard without a formal contract. But a clearly-laid-out roadmap provides excellent guidance, and just having it in circulation benefits all undergraduates. It strengthens and deepens their involvement in the advising process. It helps motivate them to focus on long-term course planning, rather than simply building the next semester around convenient hours. Best of all, it has spurred departments and colleges to see that each semester's course offerings help students finish on schedule.

There is no magic, though, in putting everyone on a four-year timetable. College is a priceless opportunity for learning, self-discovery, and exploration. No student should be shackled to a commitment that precludes internships, study-abroad opportunities, or switching to a more desirable major. Even economically, shorter isn't always better: fifth-year engineering students with internship experience, for example, are more competitive in the job market.

But for those who commit themselves to stay on track with 15- or 16-hour course loads, there should be no barrier to earning a four-year degree at Iowa. We are working hard to improve our overall four-year graduation rate, which has hovered around 30 percent for many decades, as is typical of schools with admission standards similar to ours. Even though these figures don't reflect four-year graduates who transfer in or out, or those who take a summer or a semester longer to finish, they are still disappointing.

Our current four-year rate is 32.6 percent, about the median for public Big Ten schools. But that's not good enough.

By the year 2001, we expect 40 percent of our students to finish in four years. That's a target we have set for ourselves, and we are determined to meet it, along with the other targets that we submitted to the Board of Regents last May. The people of Iowa can count on it!