Boosting College Enrollment and Graduation Rates in Maryland

Higher education leaders in Maryland say they are moving with haste to develop plans to significantly boost public college enrollment and graduation rates, with a variety of strategies being explored, except lowering admissions standards.

“We don’t want to lower (admissions standards) any more,” says Coppin State University President Reginald Avery. Coppin, with an enrollment of approximately 3,800 students, enrolls the highest level of Pell Grant-eligible students in the state. Students must have a 2.5 GPA in high school to be considered for admission to the Baltimore university.

“Yes, we are looking at things like admissions standards as a variable,” says Avery, stressing that Coppin’s focus is on barriers to retention. He says anecdotal evidence points to students’ lack of money as a primary cause of his school’s low graduation rate — 17 percent. The inability to pay for college is a major hurdle for many students, he says. Coppin is currently doing research to support the anecdotal evidence.

Avery says Coppin has many so-called “stop outs,” students who stop college for a few years for financial reasons then come back to finish. Industry standards for measuring retention and graduation rates force Coppin and many other minority-serving schools to count such students as “dropouts,” however, since those students don’t fit the four and six-year yardsticks for calculating graduation rates.

Avery says Coppin’s long-term planning complements the new 10-year strategic plan issued in December by the University System of Maryland, of which Coppin is a member.

The plan calls on its 12 universities to meet specific goals by 2020. Those goals include increasing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates by 40 percent by 2020, boosting “externally sponsored research” funding and slashing internal operating costs. Each school in the system is free to chart its own course for reaching those goals.

The system’s flagship institution — the 37,000-student University of Maryland —has tightened admissions standards over the past 20 years in a concerted effort to raise the school’s national standing. According to some school officials, the idea of relaxing standards has been informally discussed, but has been met with strong opposition.

Dr. John Wolfe, the system’s associate vice chancellor for academic affairs, says the admissions policies and practices of respective schools in the system are part of a much larger landscape of categories the system and its member schools have been working on over the past four years.

“We’re not advocating anything, yet,” says Wolfe, himself a former college president. “It’s (the system’s strategic plan) constantly being tweaked, looking at best practices as defined by empirical data.”

Regarding admissions policies, Wolfe says schools are likely to keep their admissions policies intact as they try to figure out ways to boost enrollment and graduation, a goal educators generally agree can only be achieved by significantly increase minority and non-traditional student enrollment.

Wolfe says he’d like to see schools keep their admissions policies intact while still increasing access to higher education, calling an overly rigid screening process counterproductive.

At Baltimore’s Morgan State University, the largest HBCU in the state and one of the few state school’s that operates outside the university system, officials say there are no plans to relax enrollment standards. The university, which requires a minimum high school GPA of 2.0, has announced an ambitious plan to boost enrollment by 50 percent over the next decade.

In recent state legislative budget hearing testimony, university president David Wilson said the school planned to work more closely with community colleges to recruit students and improve the learning environment for existing students.