By Tom Still

MADISON – Jim Schmidt, the energetic chancellor of UW-Eau Claire, breaks it down to dollars and cents when he explains why students shouldn’t dally in their pursuit of a bachelor’s degree from his campus in northwest Wisconsin.

“It costs $50,000 to stay a fifth year,” Schmidt often tells students who enrolled without a solid plan to graduate in four years. His sobering estimate includes wages lost to delays in joining the workforce plus the cost of an extra year’s tuition and fees.

Schmidt isn’t trying to boot students out of the nest if they can’t earn a degree within the traditional four-year span. Rather, Schmidt wants incoming students and their parents to know a planning tool exists to help them avoid a costly fifth year: the UW-Eau Claire Graduation Contract.

It’s a new concept that deserves watching as UW System leaders and state policymakers come to grips with the sometimes related issues of tuition payments and student debt.

Much like contracts in other aspects of life, the UW-Eau Claire Graduation Contract is a written agreement that spells out the responsibilities of both parties.

The university promises to work with students to create four-year graduation plans through regular meetings with academic advisors, whose pay is judged in part on how well they help students stay on track.

New students who sign contracts will pledge to meet with their advisors each semester, register for classes on time, identify a major by the end of their second semester and take 30 credits per academic year. Most bachelor’s degrees require 120 credits.

The contract allows for orderly withdrawal from classes and changes in the declared major, which happens for at least half of all college students. It also anticipates internships and study abroad, two areas in which UW-Eau Claire shines. About half of all students take on internships, more than 45 percent conduct undergraduate research, and the campus ranks among the nation’s top 12 in the percentage of students (about one-third) who study in other countries.

“The contract doesn’t say, ‘You must graduate in four years,’ but it offers a clear pathway for those who want to do so,” Schmidt said. “It’s a shared responsibility. This is all about the discipline of making a plan.”

According to a 2013 report from the Chronicle of Higher Education, only 28.7 percent of the students in the UW System graduated in four years and 59.3 percent in six years. The rest dropped out altogether or took time off, perhaps to pursue a job or resume their studies later.

Schmidt said UW-Eau Claire’s four-year graduation rate is 34.3 percent and has been improving for five years. The average time to graduation is 4.7 years. The campus goal is a 50 percent four-year graduation rate, which Schmidt believes will be achieved with the help of the contract and other metrics. By way of comparison, the UW-Madison’s four-year graduation rate was reported at 55 percent.

Private universities in Wisconsin have long embraced strategies to speed time to graduation. According to the Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, the four-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time students who began and stayed at a private college is 68 percent higher than the rate for public campuses.

“This enables graduates to pay less tuition and to start earning sooner,” reported a WAICU publication.

That’s precisely Schmidt’s point when he says a fifth year at Eau Claire costs the typical student $50,000.

No matter where a student attends college, the concept is the same: Attend college for five or six years and you’re more likely to run short on money and high on debt. That’s true even in Wisconsin, where in-state tuition at public universities is lower than in-state tuition rates in other Upper Midwest states.

As Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature redesign the state’s blanket freeze on UW System tuition hikes, graduation contracts offer a performance standard by which campuses can be judged. Campuses that getting more students out on time should have leeway to charge tuition rates that help accomplish that goal. Everyone benefits when colleges are producing well-educated workers faster.