The 5 forces driving Wisconsin’s degree completion success

The university is enjoying record numbers across important graduation and retention categories
By: | October 19, 2020
Richard Hamilton Smith/Getty Images

In 2014, University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank put together a “degree completion working group” to accomplish these tasks:

  • Improve the four-year graduate rate
  • Shorten the time to degrees
  • Close equity gaps

That mission has been nearly accomplished in six years, although Blank is quick to point out, “this work is far from over.”

On Monday, Wisconsin reported that almost 90% of its undergrads are finishing their degrees within six years, a record for the public research university, and that both its four-year graduation rate and retention rate for students of color have hit record highs.

The 88.5% graduation rate within six years is up by less than a full percentage point over the prior year. But most impressive may be Wisconsin’s four-year number. Just after the president’s plan kicked into gear several years ago, that graduation number stood at 61%; this year it topped 70%.

The third piece of the plan – the equity component – notes more positives for students of color. The retention rate for the cohort is 95.9%, a slight rise year-on-year to its new record level, while the four-year grad rate for students of color also broke new territory at 56.6%.

“These are key measures of student success and help increase the affordability of a college education for our Wisconsin families,” says Blank. “This university and its faculty and staff are working diligently every day to improve the experiences of students of color on this campus.  I’m encouraged by these latest figures and committed to making sure these positive trends continue.”

Many of Wisconsin’s successful outcomes can be tied to five broad strategies it oulined in the 2014 plan:

  • Improving undergraduate academic and career advising
  • Communicating a clear message about graduation in four years
  • Setting supportive policy
  • Improving instruction
  • Increasing financial grant aid

Wisconsin officials indeed attribute the numbers to the motivation of their students, the expansion of the summer term, better academic and career counseling, and more robust enrollment technology tools.

But one of the biggest might be its assistance in meeting financial needs, most especially those for lower-income students. Retention rates for Pell grant recipients reached an all-time high this year at 95.9%, while the four-year graduation rate of those students rose to a university-best 59%.

Meanwhile, the university also confirmed it handed out 7,459 bachelor’s degrees and more than 11,000 total (including master’s and doctoral), both new highs.

Despite the pandemic’s negative effort on many universities’ enrollment numbers, Wisconsin’s held steady through the fall semester, with UW admitting the second largest freshman group in its history (7,306).

As for time to degrees, the university says those who receives bachelor’s degree are earning them in 3.92 calendar years, the second straight time it posted a number of less than four years.


Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for University Business. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com