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Michael R. Lovell

Improving student success
March 2013

In February, our university was given the opportunity to address the UW System Board of Regents on a topic that is often misunderstood or misinterpreted: six-year graduation rates. Our presentation was part of the System’s update about its progress on the More Graduates for Wisconsin initiative. The initiative was unveiled in 2010 and commits the System to awarding 80,000 more undergraduate degrees by 2025.

What can greatly influence perceptions of the UW-Milwaukee six-year graduation rate, which has been between 40 percent and 43 percent for the past several years, is it often gets compared to the entire UW System (about 60 percent) or UW-Madison (more than 80 percent).

The UWM presentation before the regents, however, allowed me to present our university in a more accurate peer group of comparable urban universities (see illustration).

It also gave me the opportunity to discuss other factors that influence the success rate of our students. These factors include the portion of our mission statement that calls on UWM to be an access university that accepts students who can be less prepared academically than those accepted by other universities.

The factors also include socioeconomic status of the families of UWM students. While we don’t know the median family income of all students who attend UWM, we do know the family income for undergraduates who apply for financial aid. When considering and comparing these families, we see that for fall 2011, the UW-Milwaukee median family income was $60,657, UW System was $74,950 and UW-Madison was $99,018.

The New York Times in December had an excellent article citing academic research about the advantages that affluent students have in their educations, and the disadvantages that lower-income families have when attempting to support their children’s efforts to be successful in college.

Many of those disadvantages are familiar to UWM students, too, central among them being the need to work to earn money while attending school – reducing the time available for academic work (see “For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in a Hard Fall,” The New York Times, Dec. 22, 2012).

While our students do face more challenges to completing their degrees, our university must make significant contributions for the UW System’s More Graduates for Wisconsin initiative to be successful. With that in mind, I was able to also talk about the steps UWM is taking to move its six-year graduation rate to 50 percent by 2017 through high-impact strategies that include focusing fund-raising efforts on scholarships, and building retention and engaging students of color through Access to Success.

My presentation, along with those of UW System Senior Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs Mark Nook and UW-Superior Chancellor Renée Wachter, are online at

In preparing for this presentation, I gained a greater appreciation for the work being done to support student success across campus by faculty and staff, and especially by those in our divisions of Academic Affairs and Student Affairs. There is a great deal of work still ahead, but it is clear that a strong foundation has been laid. We clearly have a better chance of reaching our objectives thanks to the work already done.


Michael R. Lovell