By Michael McGuire

Southern Virginia University is the only college in Rockbridge County with a graduation rate below the national average, according to a study released last week by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Less than 8 percent of SVU students earn a degree within four years of entering the school.

The college completion study tracked all students entering U.S. colleges in the fall of 2004. It measured the percentage of students who graduated within four years and within six years.

With an 8 percent four-year graduation rate, SVU ranks far below the national four-year private school average of 52.5 percent. The college’s six-year graduation rate is 27.2 percent, which is also below the national average of 65.5 percent for private schools.

Southern Virginia University graduates less than 10 percent of its students in four years, and less than 30 percent in six years. Graphic by Michael McGuire

Burke Olsen, SVU’s vice president of communications and marketing, said that the school’s ties to the Mormon church may be the biggest factor in the low graduation rate.

“We have a huge percentage of freshman males who leave the school for two-year missions,” said Olsen.

While they are away, some meet students from other Mormon schools, such as Brigham Young University, and leave SVU to study elsewhere, said Olsen. Others re-enter the school mid-year, pushing their graduation back a semester.

The Chronicle of Higher Education study does not track the students who leave for missionary work, Olsen said. Accordingly, the freshman retention rate at SVU — less than 50 percent — appears low.

In addition, many of the school’s 800 students come from the West and are sensitive to the $18,000 tuition cost at the small liberal arts school, said Olsen. SVU offers only 14 majors, so some students pack up their things after getting their core education credits and earn their degrees elsewhere.

SVU’s offerings are in stark contrast with the 41 majors offered at Washington and Lee University, another private four-year liberal arts school in Rockbridge County. W&L’s four-year graduation rate is about 92 percent.

“Ninety two percent is a very good year for us,” said Robert Strong, interim provost at Washington and Lee. “But it changes from year to year.”

Strong says that W&L’s high graduation rate is a result of the school’s selectivity, small classrooms, well-paid professors and well-prepared students.

“We don’t really have anyone here who can’t handle it,” he said.

Still, Strong said he’s cautious about striving for great numbers in studies like the completion study released by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

“I’m not sure you’d want a perfect graduation rate,” he said.

Washington and Lee graduates nine times the amount of students as SVU in four years. Chart by Michael McGuire

Some students decide W&L isn’t the right fit for them, he said. For a few, it’s too much of a challenge. Some can’t find the perfect major at the centuries-old school.

“A perfect four-year graduation rate wouldn’t make you a great college or university,” Strong said.

Neighboring Virginia Military Institute also has an above-average graduation rate. According to the study, VMI graduated almost 60 percent of its cadets in four years.  The average four-year graduation rate for public universities is 31 percent.

SVU has been a Mormon-affiliated liberal arts school for 16 years.

“Because we are so young, we lack the name recognition and loyalty that older and larger institutions enjoy,” Olsen said. However, within the six years tracked by the study, the school has been evolving quickly, he said.

The grade point averages and standardized test scores of the incoming students are rising.

“They have never been higher,” said Olsen.

Student satisfaction is also increasing, he said. Since 2004, the school has built and renovated buildings. It has invested more money in dining services, athletic fields, the student center and air conditioning for many buildings. SVU might receive regional accreditation this June — the same month that a newly appointed university president will take over on campus.

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