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Consumer Reports

Colleges say: Peter Pan, grow up! | (UPI) -- Peter Pan and Never-Neverland are costing states lots of money, and several colleges and universities around the nation are trying to do something about it.

A struggling economy and pleasant college surroundings "can contribute to the Peter Pan effect -- the desire not to grow up," says Seppy Basili, vice president for educational services at Kaplan Inc., a Washington Post-owned educational provider.

"Students are saying, 'I don't want to grow up and this is a great place to be.' In Blacksburg, Va., (home of Virginia Tech), they call it the gravity pit because it's so hard to leave. Madison, Wis., Austin, Tex., Gainesville, Fla. -- you'd be surprised how hard it is to leave," Basili said.

He said students are also reluctant to dive into an iffy jobs pool just yet.

There are other problems too. At many institutions, it's difficult to get all the requirements for a specific course of study out of the way in four years.

Colleges and universities are offering incentives and cutting through red tape for students having trouble fulfilling graduation requirements.

"States want to solve the problem very badly. Every extra semester is costing a small fortune and taxpayers are heavily subsidizing tuition," Basili said. "This effort will free up all kinds of space and cut costs."

One of the approaches in Texas is that if a student takes a normal class load of 12 credit hours, he or she is allowed to take more classes at no extra charge.

Ed Sharpe, vice chancellor for educational systems in the Texas university system, said the University of Texas in Austin is leading the way.

"The student pays a flat amount and can take additional courses at no cost. That encourages them to finish," he said. "There is a lot of effort to remind them in various ways to take at least 15 hours or so to be on course to graduate in four years."

He said one of the goals in Texas is to increase the number of students attending colleges by 500,000 by 2005. He said that is intended to increase degrees by as much as 50 percent, including two-year degrees.

"With those goals, we're concerned with increasing capacity. One way to do that is for students not to stay in college more than four years," he said.

He also said the Texas system is working toward helping students meet course requirements in time to graduate.

"A lot of computerized scheduling, planning and registration have helped," Sharpe said. "That way the colleges can open new courses and get students on track to meet the requirements."

He said he felt the efforts have helped resolve that issue.

The University of Florida is also trying to be more student-friendly in that regard.

"We think we're doing very well. The graduation rate is rising," said Associate Provost Joseph Glover. "It's a credit to new advising and tracking systems that encourage students to move along at a reasonable rate."

He said every department on campus has prescribed a rate of progress and a computerized tracking system shows if students are off track and should be called in to talk to an adviser.

"To make this work, we are telling students which courses they need. The university is committed to making seats available. When we see a bottleneck, we do something about it," Glover said.

He said that is done by establishing extra classes, or expanding the number of students in existing classes.

At the University of Minnesota, where the four-year graduation rate is only 27 percent, rising tuition costs over the last two years and low graduation rates have spurred many of the same programs as Texas and Florida.

Minnesota offers free courses to any students taking more than the 13 credits and explains to incoming freshman they can save money off the $6,280 tuition by graduating within four years.

The University of Iowa has a program that guarantees incoming freshmen access to required courses and attention from advisers if they sign a pledge to graduate in four years.

The program started seven years ago when officials realized the four-year graduation rate was only 33 percent. Now, 48 percent of those who sign the pledge graduate on time compared to 28 percent among those who do not sign the pledge.

Basili thinks the four-year schools could do more.

"To my mind, we should be much more creative with incentives -- tuition for graduate school for instance, or marketing-style incentives," he said. "Car companies make special offers to graduates. Universities might look for partnerships (with those companies) that include financing a car at a lower rate."

Figures on four-year graduates are not readily available. Most officials point toward the six-year figures complied by the NCAA, responding to criticism that not as many athletes graduate as normal students.

The latest figures for freshmen that entered in the 1995-96 school year showed the graduation rate overall was 58 percent compared with 60 percent for athletes. But those are six-year results and don't address the money that could be saved if most of them graduated within the traditional four-year span.

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