UK's impressive freshman class; focus now on retention

In a period of dreary education news, it was good to read that the University of Kentucky has enrolled its largest, most academically qualified and diverse freshman class ever.

UK has chosen to focus its scholarship dollars on attracting high-school students who excel to the school and the results show.

There are more National Merit finalists than ever (71 this year compared to 29 last year) as well as more Singletary Scholars (51 compared to 34) and Honors Program students (309 compared to 226.)

UK also deserves credit for stepping up its efforts to recruit minority students, long a sore point.

The 533 black freshmen represents about 11 percent of the class and a 26 percent increase over last year. Hispanic freshmen increased by 44 percent, to 166.

The size of the class — 4,645 or 500 more than last year — is in part a function of economics, with the recession keeping kids closer to home.

However, the huge increase in foreign students, up 96 percent to 110, includes a large group from China, where more families can afford to pay the full freight to send kids to school in the U.S.

A couple of cautionary notes are in order.

First, retention. It's one thing to get an eager 18-year-old to come to school, it's quite another to graduate that person in four years.

Students and their families give up a significant investment in time and money when they don't finish school, as well as future earnings.

Attracting a new student is more expensive than keeping an existing one, so low graduation rates are an institutional expense, too.

According to its most recent report, in April of this year, UK's four-year graduation rate for the students who came in as freshmen in 2007 was 33.1 percent, a number that has barely moved in the last five years.

That rate was 20 percent for black students, a number that stalled out in the past three years, after increasing from an even more dismal 14 percent in 2003.

So, UK must redouble its efforts to create an educational and social environment that keeps kids in school, especially minority students.

That's related to the second point, which is that UK faces a huge challenge providing a quality education and experience to this larger-than-ever cohort at a time when it has laid off about one percent of its work force and eliminated vacant staff and faculty positions in wake of a $20 million state funding cut.

An extra student here or there may not be an issue, but it will be hard to make the educational numbers work with 500 additional freshmen following layoffs and during a hiring freeze.

So, while congratulations are in order to UK and this talented, diverse group of students it has recruited, there is plenty of work that remains to be done.