Starting next fall, students who remain in good standing at Midland University will graduate in four years or the school will cover the cost of any additional tuition.
The Fremont, Neb., college is unveiling its new four-year graduation guarantee program in an effort to boost graduation rates and continue an aggressive recruitment plan that began last year.
It works like this: Starting with next year's freshman class, students must declare a single major by the beginning of their sophomore year, take their required classes, maintain a full class load and keep their grades up.
In turn, the school promises that students will get into their required classes and promises to provide stronger academic advising.
The combined efforts should ensure a degree in four years, Midland President Ben Sasse said.
"If we don't get you through in four years and you've met your requirements," he said, "we'll take the financial hit."
Sasse said Midland's four-year graduation rate was as low as 40 percent in recent years.
"We were dissatisfied," he said.
As plans for the new program began to evolve, Midland officials realized that most of their classes were being offered at 10 a.m., a time preferred by most professors. Sasse said the school is offering more classes at different times so students have an easier time getting into them.
In addition, Midland is streamlining its first-year student curriculum so that freshmen will have to complete 30 instead of 39 credits. Graduation requirements for all majors were aligned to fall within 120 total credits, a move college officials say make it more possible to finish in four years.
Four-year guarantees are becoming more popular at smaller, private liberal arts colleges as they try to keep tuition costs as low as possible while maintaining academic excellence, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. A handful of mostly East and West Coast schools have embraced the idea.
Midland's four-year guarantee program is for the most part new to Nebraska and Iowa.
Some private schools in both states, like Grinnell College, Nebraska Wesleyan and Creighton University, have plans for getting undergraduate students done in four years — but they don't pay for additional tuition if it takes longer.
Doane College in Crete, Neb., however, has offered a four-year guarantee program since 1997. If students follow the guidelines and still don't finish in four years, the school will cover the cost of two additional semesters.
Doane has had to pay tuition for only one student under the program.
"Most are done in four years," said Denise Ellis, Doane's registrar. "But it gives parents confidence, and we want them done in four years as well."
Hastings College President Dennis Trotter said he's concerned that such programs place more emphasis on the outcome of the education than the educational experience itself.
"It plays into this increasing mentality of credentialing," he said. "It makes it all about the first job you get rather than preparing you to get the job that matches your talents and abilities."
Earlier this month, the University of Nebraska Board of Regents approved a new policy that would restrict the requirements for most degrees at its Omaha, Lincoln and Kearney campuses to 120 hours, making it possible for students who earn 15 credit hours a semester to complete their bachelor's degree in four years.
But if it takes longer, NU doesn't cover the extra cost.
The University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa offer students a four-year graduation plan, but like NU, they don't foot the bill if more than four years are needed to get a degree.
A survey of 973 recent NU graduates showed they took an average of nine semesters to graduate. The students in the survey attended the three undergraduate campuses, Lincoln, Omaha and Kearney.
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