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Washburn University reaches highest graduation rate in university history, but work remains

The Topeka Capital-Journal logo The Topeka Capital-Journal 2/7/2023 Rafael Garcia, Topeka Capital-Journal
Although Washburn's graduation rate is top among Kansas' regional universities, more work is needed for students who don't graduate in six years. © 2018 file photo/The Capital-Journal Although Washburn's graduation rate is top among Kansas' regional universities, more work is needed for students who don't graduate in six years.

It would have been easy for Washburn University to boost its graduation rates simply by making it harder for students to get in in the first place.

The municipal university, since its inception, has taken practically all students who can meet the most basic of academic standards.

More:Nearly half of Washburn students are first-generation. It's been a decade in the making.

That meant that for years, only about 1 in 3 students who entered as freshman actually finished their degree within six years — slightly better than the 28% rate at other universities with open admissions policies, but not by much.

But for Alan Bearman and other Washburn University administrators, restricting admission from even more students was a no go from the start, especially when many students are already struggling to pay for college.

The university would have to raise graduation rates the hard, but honest, way — by creating the conditions and opportunities for Washburn students to succeed, a tall order when many of the university’s students are first generation.

“We made the choice to stay true to our historical mission of access, and when you do that, and you commit yourself to equitable outcomes, you meet students no matter where they’re at,” said Bearman, dean of the university's Center for Student Success and Retention. “That’s something to be proud of.”

More:Despite lower enrollment and higher tuition, Washburn University's budget appears rosier in 2022-23

For their efforts, Washburn University on Friday will report to the federal government a six-year, May 2022 graduation rate of 54%, which reflects a university record and the highest rate among Kansas’ regional universities.

“We believe this was a primary contributor in moving us up on our U.S. News and World Rankings,” President JuliAnn Mazachek told the Washburn Board of Regents. “It is significant, and I hope that when you talk about it, you can tell people that we make people successful here. They achieve their educational goals and dreams.”

How Washburn University got to record graduation rate

It was almost six years ago that Bearman recalls Mazachek, then the vice president of academic affairs, charged him and other staff with figuring out a way to boost Washburn University’s graduation rate, which had languished at about 36%.

More:JuliAnn Mazachek's return to Washburn University in Topeka sends MSU Texas on new path

Such a monumental effort would take every single employee at Washburn, Bearman quickly realized — “a total campus commitment to student success.”

That meant creating classes like WU 101, the university’s required class to help freshman transition into successful college students. The class teaches subjects like financial literacy and successful study habits.

Washburn also retooled the way it taught math classes. Instead of a university-wide approach to required math classes, professors streamlined the course catalog so students took the most appropriate math courses for their degrees.

Additionally, Washburn created more academic coach positions and a math lab to help students pass classes that often were the final obstacle toward obtaining a degree. University staff also work with at-risk students to check grades a few weeks into the semester, rather than at mid-term, before low grades become failing ones.

More:Kansas higher education sits at a crossroads as officials ask, 'What will lawmakers do?'

“You wake up one day, and the culture is shifted,” Bearman said. “Everyone starts thinking about, how can I personally help students? That’s Washburn at its best. … Everyone here is committed to that personal touch, and when you add all of that up, great things are happening.”

Washburn ‘not satisfied’ with record graduation rate, outreach still needed to nearly half of students

Even at a record graduation rate, the fact remains that nearly half of Washburn University students fail to graduate within six years, and that’s not lost on Bearman.

It’s an open-ended question that he and his staff are still working to answer, especially in getting up to at least 64%, the average among all public U.S. colleges and universities.

More:‘An Ichabod at heart’ — JuliAnn Mazachek returns to Washburn University as 15th president

In sifting through the data, Washburn will focus on the student subgroups that need a little more attention, Bearman said. For example, male students are much less likely to graduate than women.

“We’re not satisfied,” he said. “We’re not done. And that’s exactly what we’re doing, looking for those places where we can do more and get to students earlier.”

Mazachek, who on Thursday was in her second day on the job, said she is proud to return to Washburn and see its progress in the eleven months since she left for a presidency at a Texas university.

More:Washburn University plans to use $1M gift to build new presidential mansion next to campus

But she agreed that Washburn can continue to make strides in its metrics for student success.

“I want you all to know that I heard that you have high expectations for what we’re going to do moving forward,” Mazachek said. “We will get to work almost immediately on that.”

Rafael Garcia is an education reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at or by phone at 785-289-5325. Follow him on Twitter at @byRafaelGarcia.

This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: Washburn University reaches highest graduation rate in university history, but work remains


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