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Finishing for free [Editorial]

Fewer than one in 10 students at the University of Baltimore graduates within four years of being admitted as a freshman. That costs those students and the university dearly: For the school it means spending more resources on instruction and other services, and for the students it often means taking on more debt and delaying starting a career. Perhaps most important, the longer students delay completing their college course work, the less likely they are to graduate. By the time a student has been in college six years, the chances that he or she eventually will earn a diploma are just 3 percent.

That's why UB has embarked on an innovative experiment designed to encourage students to graduate on time. This fall the school is offering to let students attend classes for free during their final semester if they can finish their degree in four years. University President Robert L. Bogomolny says the initiative could pay for itself if it ends up allowing the school to spend less keeping students beyond the traditional four years and also encourages more young people to apply for admission. Moreover, if the program works as intended, it could serve as a model for other public colleges and universities in the state that are also seeking to boost their graduation rates and enrollments.

The University of Baltimore is a particularly appropriate place to try this idea out. Since it converted from a transfer school for juniors and seniors to a full, four-year college that began admitting freshmen in 2007, the school has struggled to graduate its students on time. Many of its students are the first in their families to attend college, and most also have to work at least part-time in order to support themselves while in school. Even with federal student loans to help with tuition — the university charges $6,600 a year for in-state students, $18,000 for those from out of state — the challenges they face paying bills and keeping up with their school work can be daunting.

Giving students financial incentives to complete their course work is an idea that's being tried in other states around the country as a way of reducing the cost of higher education for both schools and their students. Indiana University, for example, exempts students from tuition increases that occur while they're in school if they graduate within four years. Other schools take the opposite approach, waiving some costs for those who take more than four years to graduate; the idea is to keep young people from dropping out before they earn a diploma simply because they run out of money and can't afford to stay in school.

Overall, four-year graduation rates in Maryland's public colleges and universities currently average only about 41 percent. The highest rate is at the state's flagship university at College Park, which over the last decade has risen from less than half to 65 percent. But many other schools award far fewer graduates a diploma after four years, and the University of Baltimore is close to the bottom with just 8 percent. The only state school that graduates fewer students after four years is Coppin State University, at 5 percent.

The University System of Maryland is looking at ways to improve those numbers, such as offering scholarships to students who drop out close to graduation and providing other incentives to get students to graduate more quickly and help those who are just a handful of credits away from earning a diploma. In a global marketplace where highly educated workers drive innovation and economic growth, Maryland needs as many college graduates as possible to be competitive. Educators should be watching closely to see whether allowing students to "finish for free" at UB moves the state closer to that goal, and if so how its success can be replicated at other schools in the university system.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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