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Nevada seeks to graduate more college students through national program

Hey, at least we’re ahead of Louisiana and Arkansas.

But when it comes to the portion of Nevada’s young adults with college degrees, we rank below every other state.

Nevada ranks last or nearly last in most other related categories, too:

■ High school freshmen who go on to get a college degree.

■ The percentage of the adult population with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

■ The percentage of the working age population with a graduate degree.

All of this and more is why the state’s higher education system joined up with a national effort to dramatically increase the number of college graduates over the next decade.

“It’s definitely going to be a high hurdle for us to meet,” said Michael Bowers, provost at UNLV, where the graduation rate only now has risen to 41 percent. “But we’re up to it.”

So far, 24 states have joined Complete College America, a national nonprofit effort based in Washington, D.C., and funded by several humanitarian and education foundations.

The guiding philosophy behind the group is that college degrees are becoming more necessary in today’s economy. In fact, the group says 60 percent of all new jobs will require a college education by 2020.

Nationally, 38 percent of people age 25-34 have an associate’s degree or higher. It’s 28 percent in Nevada.

To change that will require a huge improvement in the graduation rates at the state’s colleges and universities. While UNLV’s graduation rate has inched up to 41 percent, the rate at the College of Southern Nevada is 4 percent.

The goal is to increase the number of graduates from about 12,000 in 2010 to 23,000 in 2020.

That number includes the seven public colleges and universities and a handful of private colleges in the state.

Sharon Wurm, the higher education system’s liaison for Complete College America, said the goal is to increase the number of graduates, which includes certificates from the community college and full-fledged degrees, by 1,064 each year for 10 years.

It’s an ambitious goal, she said, but it is achievable.

Bowers, from UNLV, said the university has taken several steps in the past several years to help students graduate more quickly. Graduation rates are measured by following a group of students for six years.

The rate is up slightly from eight years ago, when it was 37 percent.

Bowers said increased entry requirements implemented a few years ago should help. He also listed the academic success center, tutoring programs and more aggressive advising as helping students be successful.

He said the university next fall will launch a freshman experience program modeled after similar programs at other universities.

Such programs aim to help new college students adjust, and results suggest students subjected to the program are more likely to stay in college.

Getting students to finish is a whole different story at the community college.

Darren Divine, CSN’s vice president for academic affairs, said the first problem is defining success.

Many students attend the community college for only a class or two, or with the goal of transferring to a university, or at such a slow, part-time pace that even if they do graduate, they aren’t counted because it took too long.

Graduation rates for two-year degrees are typically measured by how many finished in three years.

Beyond that, Divine said, it can be difficult to convince students that it makes sense to get an associate’s degree when they fully intend to go on to get a bachelor’s degree at a university.

Nonetheless, the college is considering several steps to improve its completion rate.

“We have too many people who start college and never finish,” Divine said.

Some ideas under consideration include: shorter semesters and more of them; remedial courses in math and science that won’t delay a student’s progress; a better system for tracking students once they leave CSN; offering more tutoring, though that is expensive; targeting high school students who will need remedial education before they enter college; and making academic advising mandatory.

Art Byrd, CSN’s vice president for student affairs, said the college already has launched what is called Project Graduate. Though it is not directly related to Complete College America, it has a similar goal: to get more CSN students to graduate.

Byrd said the college has tracked down 4,269 students who have 45 credits or more — those who are less than a year from potential graduation — and at least a 2.0 grade-point average.

CSN officials are contacting every one of those students to ask how the college can help them graduate.

He said the effort is too new to know what the results will be yet, but the feedback has been positive. Students appreciate the effort, he said.

If it works, “we’re going to continue this year after year.”

Contact reporter Richard Lake at rlake@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0307.

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