The University of Kentucky is expected to set ambitious goals to improve undergraduate retention and graduation rates, and to close gaps in those rates for minority, first-generation and low-income students.
"We're setting a high mark for ourselves," said Ben Withers, associate provost for undergraduate education, talking to the UK Board of Trustees on Thursday during a three-day board retreat. "We are ensuring that students have the same opportunity."
For example, the six-year graduation rate for the targeted groups is 12 to 15 percentage points below the university's overall rate of 60.2 percent. By 2020, that gap would be cut to 8 percentage points under the proposal.
The goals are part of a five-year strategic plan the Board of Trustees is expected to approve Saturday.
By 2020, UK also hopes to raise the rate of students who return for their second year to 90 percent, up from 82.7 percent.
The current four-year graduation rate is 38.5 percent. That rate is supposed to rise to 53 percent in five years. The percentage of students who graduate within six years of starting college would increase from 60.2 percent to 70 percent under the proposed goals.
UK officials have said repeatedly that retaining and graduating more students is a moral and ethical issue, but it is also a financial one — retaining more students means collecting more tuition dollars.
To improve retention and graduation rates, UK will have to deal more holistically with the needs of students from the moment they come to campus, Withers said.
"Students are coming to us with academic issues; there's also an increasing number of students facing other difficulties, whether it's financial or mental health or you name it, we have to prepare for the whole thing," he said.
One idea is to implement an online program known as GPS, the Graduation Planning System, which would allow students to track their class offerings in every major to see how they are progressing toward their credit requirements.
Withers also said students are greatly affected by financial problems, which lead many of them to drop out. In a 2013 health survey, 16 percent of UK students said academic performance was hurt by financial trouble; of the 41 percent who reported stress, about half said it was because of money.
UK plans to hire a financial wellness specialist and train peer counselors to help. Officials also are considering changes to some of its financial-aid strategies, such as offering smaller, targeted grants that might help students stay in school.
"If we want students to come to UK, they're trusting us and we need to fulfill that," Withers said. "We want students to succeed."