Portland State University is doing a great job at attracting students but not such a great job of graduating those same students.

And that fact will be a pressure point for PSU if the 2011 Legislature passes a mammoth, 400-page higher-ed reform bill that proposes to give Oregon's seven public universities far greater autonomy in exchange for a higher level of accountability.

The bill would mean PSU must become less of a warehouse and more of a finishing school, because the focus of future public university funding would shift from enrollment to outcomes.

"We'll set targets for graduation rates," says Senate Education Committee Chairman Mark Hass (D-Beaverton). "And funding will be set according to those goals."

Hass co-chaired a bipartisan panel that wrote the bill and introduced it to an interim committee last week. The measure enjoys strong bipartisan support, although a competing University of Oregon plan could muddy the waters.

Currently, the Legislature allocates money—$821 million in the 2009-11 biennium—to Oregon's seven public universities based on a formula that largely depends on enrollment. As part of an ambitious expansion in recent years, PSU has recruited foreign and out-of-state students and competed for those who might previously have headed to Eugene or Corvallis.

But even as PSU's enrollment of 28,522 soared above that of Oregon and Oregon State, the university's graduation rate remained low.

Federal stats show only 33 percent of those students who entered PSU in 2003 graduated within six years.

The national rate was 57 percent. At the University of Oregon, 70 percent graduated within six years, and at Oregon State the number was 60 percent. PSU's six-year graduation rate also places it well below the 41 percent average of the 14 urban universities it compares itself to (41 percent).

PSU professor Sukhwant Singh Jhaj, also a special assistant to the provost, is leading a project to identify reasons more students are not graduating.

Jhaj says there are two important points to consider when looking at graduation rates: First, it's only one measure of a university; and second, as an urban, mostly community university, PSU does not operate in the same world as UO or OSU because PSU is not an enclosed traditional campus.

Still, Jhaj says, neither he nor his colleagues in the provost's office are defending the status quo.

"We know our graduation rate must improve," he says.

Jhaj's project has involved crunching data PSU had not previously analyzed to figure out who was falling through the cracks en route to graduation, and why.

Their findings are not terribly surprising but do suggest that if the Legislature approves the reform bill, PSU could look very different. Jhaj's analysis found three primary factors determine whether students succeed at PSU: academic preparedness, the level of "connectedness" they feel to the university, and their "financial and physical well-being."

Although PSU nominally requires entering students to have a grade point average of 3.0 or higher, Jhaj found nearly one-third of students enrolled in basic courses that most entering students take had not met that standard.

Second, students often skipped fundamental steps such as attending freshman orientation and displayed little awareness of counseling or other support services that could help when they encountered difficulties.

The new plan is to "front-load services," Jhaj says, so students know what resources are available when they are struggling to pay tuition or worried about other obstacles to graduation.

Hass, the Senate education committee chairman, applauds that approach. He says there's limited benefit to students or the state when both spend scarce dollars without having a diploma to show for the effort.

"At some point it's incumbent on these institutions to take some responsibility for helping these kids succeed," Hass says. "Setting some goals here should help change that."


Of the 14 urban universities PSU compares itself to, the best six-year graduation rate for the class entering in 2003 was at University of North Carolina-Charlotte (54 percent). The worst was at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock (14 percent).