University of Louisville President James Ramsey defended his record to a Rotary Club audience last month, detailing what he described as an indisputably dramatic increase in academic metrics since he took over in 2002. However, according to figures provided to the Board of Trustees by his office a week before this speech, some of these academic metrics have begun to decline recently, including the university’s graduation and retention rates.

In Ramsey’s Jan. 21 speech to the Rotary Club, he touted the large and steady increase in U of L’s six-year graduation rate from 33 percent in 2002 to 53.6 percent. However, the latter figure presented by Ramsey was actually for the period ending with the summer semester 2014. According to figures provided to members of the Board of Trustees at their meeting a week earlier, the graduation rate following the summer of 2015 was actually 52.9 percent, which is lower than both 2013 and 2014, and a full percentage point below their goal for the year.

University of Louisville's 6-year graduation rate since 2002, according to figures from President James Ramsey's office presented to the Board of Trustees in January
University of Louisville’s 6-year graduation rate since 2002, according to figures from President James Ramsey’s office presented to the Board of Trustees in January

Asked why Ramsey used the older and higher figure, university spokesman John Karman told Insider Louisville that the 2015 graduation rate was calculated last September, so “it is a timing issue.” Asked how four-month-old numbers would constitute a timing issue, U of L spokeswoman Cindy Hess replied that the higher 2014 graduation rate was “the last number officially reported to the board and, thus, the number Dr. Ramsey used. The 2015 number of 52.9% has not been reported to the board in an official capacity. That will happen in July 2016.”

In the Rotary speech, Ramsey also cited the large increase in degrees awarded during his tenure — from 1,849 bachelor’s degrees in 2002 to 2,832 in the 2014-2015 academic year, and from 90 doctoral degrees in 2002 to 172 in 2014-2015. But according to preliminary 2015-2016 numbers presented to the board a week earlier — including degrees from the summer of 2015 and applications for graduation from last fall’s semester — the numbers are below what they were at this point a year earlier, dropping from 1,256 to 1,116. The final number of degrees for 2015-2016 will not be posted until the end of the spring semester.

The number of bachelor’s degrees awarded at U of L has gone up each year since 2008, and while doctoral degrees significantly dipped in 2012-2013, they have increased in each of the last two recorded years.

uofl ba degrees

uofl phd degrees

While Ramsey did not mention the university’s retention rate of first-year students who stayed for their second year, the document presented to the Board of Trustees shows that number declined during the 2014-2015 academic year. While this retention rate remained static at roughly 78 percent for almost a decade, it jumped to 80.6 percent in 2013-2014, then dipped to 79.4 percent in 2014-2015, which was 1.2 percent below U of L’s goal for that year. While U of L met their goals last year in decreasing the retention gap of low-income and underprepared students, they did not do so for underrepresented minority students.

The retention rate was 77.1 percent when Ramsey became president in 2002. Karman said the decrease in U of L’s retention rate last year was “not a statistically significant drop.”

uofl retention rates

The document presented to the trustees also showed that federal National Science Foundation expenditures by the university have fallen over each of the past three years, and preliminary numbers for the 2016 fiscal year are below that of last year. In 2012, NSF expenditures were $196.4 million, declining to $179.3 million last year. Over the first five months of the current fiscal year, U of L has $74.7 million in NSF expenditures, which is below the $83.2 million figure at that point in 2015.

Karman says this drop in NSF expenditures is consistent with national trends, as federal support for universities has flattened since 2005. He added that while U of L was able to secure $173 million from 2005-2012 due to congressionally directed research programs and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, these mechanisms are no longer available.

The trustees also were shown that the number of U of L students studying abroad fell to 847 in 2015, the fourth year in a row that this number was below their goal. Karman said these study abroad numbers “have been impacted because of security and recent emerging health concerns, such as Ebola. Several study abroad experiences have been cancelled.”

One academic metric that has not been marked by a recent decline is the number of degrees and credentials awarded in the fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, science/math teacher preparation and health professionals (STEM+H). STEM+H degrees increased from 1,621 to 1,664 last year, the sixth year in a row in which this number has increased. There were 1,254 of such degrees awarded in 2002.

The document presented to trustees last month also showed that philanthropic donations received by the university — excluding athletics — are well above the pace of the last fiscal year. So far in the 2016 fiscal year, U of L has received $101.9 million, whereas they had received $71.7 million at this point last year. The university raised $237.9 million last year, and the amount has increased each year since 2007, when they raised only $63 million.

uofl foundation philanthropy

Ramsey continues to tout the massive amount of money raised by the University of Louisville Foundation, the school’s nonprofit that now has a $1.1 billion endowment. At his Rotary speech, Ramsey said such funds have been able to stem the tide of state budget cuts to higher education over the past decade — adding that last year the university received $154 million of philanthropic support, outpacing their state appropriation of $140 million.

While philanthropic support continues to increase, the percentage of alumni donating to the university’s annual fund decreased last year to its lowest level since 2011. In the 2015 fiscal year, 13.9 percent of alumni donated, down from 14.5 percent in 2014 — the third straight year in which the percentage did not meet the university’s goal. The percentage of alumni who donated in 2002 was 12.1 percent, reaching a high of 15 percent in 2006.

Following his testimony before a legislative committee in Frankfort on the effects of Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposed cuts to higher education, Ramsey had an angry exchange with reporters on rumors that he is considering retirement amidst a plethora of scandals and controversies surrounding U of L over the past year. Ramsey accused the media of “a lack of integrity,” adding “I’m going to be focused on students… and graduating students. And I’m not interested in all of this stuff that you all try to manufacture.”

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Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]