Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

How Purdue Aims To Boost One Of The Big Ten's Lowest Graduation Rates

Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

Prof. Larry Nies leads a discussion in his environmental engineering course. This year, Nies redesigned the class's structure to make it more student-driven and discussion-based.

Purdue’s newest lecture hall isn’t really a “lecture” hall at all.

Instead of rows of auditorium seating, moveable circular tables and chairs fill the cavernous room in an underground library — a space West Lafayette administrators hope will get more students engaged and on-track.

Saddled with one of the lowest four-year graduation rates in the Big Ten, Purdue redesigned 10 first- and second-year courses  — all formerly taught in a traditional lecture format — to be more interactive and student-driven.

Administrators hope revamping these courses will stop freshmen from falling behind and help the university earn a bigger share of $61 million in performance funding from the state.

Four-Year Graduation Rates, Big Ten Schools (2008)
Northwestern 86%
Michigan – Ann Arbor 72%
Illinois – Urbana/Champaign 67%
Penn State 62%
Indiana – Bloomington 50%
Wisconsin – Madison 50%
Ohio State 49%
Michigan State 48%
Minnesota – Twin Cities 46%
Iowa 44%
Purdue – West Lafayette 38%*
Nebraska – Lincoln 29%
SOURCE: NCES, 2008 data
*NOTE: Reflects most recent federal statistics. Purdue officials have cited a more recent figure of 42 percent.

“Our state legislators, our parents, they don’t want the students dropping out,” says Marne Helgesen, director of Purdue’s Center for Instructional Excellence, which is overseeing the school’s course redesign, called the “IMPACT” program.

Nearly 3,000 Purdue students have signed up for courses revamped to emphasize active teaching methods, from “Elementary Psychology” to “Basic Mechanics II.”

Some courses involve interactive discussion groups, others require watching lecture videos online outside of class or the use of new technologies in class.

But Purdue administrators and teachers intend all courses in the IMPACT program to challenge the expectation that college students learn in settings where information is presented to them passively — what Purdue professor Larry Nies terms “filing facts into your brain.”

“What we’re supposed to be teaching students is how to take those facts and assemble them and synthesize them and do something with them,” says Nies, who redesigned his environmental engineering course by imitating the principles used in the IMPACT program.

It’s too early to know whether the program is actually affecting on student performance. Nies says his class’s grades ride largely on the cumulative final exam, which isn’t taken until mid-December.

If students’ grades and graduation rates do change, it’s possible the program could have a direct effect on Purdue’s state funding.

In the 2011-2013 budget, Purdue-West Lafayette grabbed a $14.7 million share of a total of $122.1 million in performance funding, which the state distributed to all Indiana public universities based on their levels on-time graduation, success rates for low-income students, and other similar metrics.

Indiana higher education commissioner Teresa Lubbers says Purdue’s effort to redesign its courses fits the state’s overall vision of a more “student-centric” university system. In a similar vein, Lubbers says the state’s two-year colleges are looking at revamping remediation courses to be more engaging for students.

“As we’re serving a larger portion of the population going to college, we need to make sure that students aren’t only going to college — often borrowing money to do so — but that they’re exiting college with a credential that benefits them,” Lubbers says.

Purdue senior Nadim Chakroun, who’s in Nies’s environmental engineering class, says most of his classes in college have been in traditional lecture formats. He says a discussion-based model works better for this type of class.

“If you just work on your own, it’s hard to come up with ideas. If you have a group, you can bounce ideas of different people to get their input, because we’re all different types of engineers,” Chakroun says.

The adjustment to the new model hasn’t come without challenges for students and teachers. Nies says it was easy for him to lecture for 50 minutes, answer a few questions, and call it a day. Nies says he was “utterly miserable” in this setting, but he also says student evaluations show they still prefer this method.

“They’re still of the mindset that they would really prefer that I just tell them all the right answers, in a lecture format —  very much them being passive and me being active,” he says.

But in the end, Nies says the old way isn’t effective.

“If I just tell them what the answer is, probably 70 percent of [students] will forget it an hour later, 90 percent by 5 o’clock that evening, and only 3 of them will remember it,” Nies says. “Then, if they were going to take a test, they would all relearn it again, and forget it after the test.  But if you make them fight through it and discover the answer, they’re gonna remember it.”

CORRECTION: In a previous incarnation of the above table, the author committed one of his own pet peeves by confusing the graduation rates of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. He hates it when people do that with “State” universities. Unlike Victoria’s Secret designers, he knows the difference between the Spartans and Wolverines and regrets the error, which he chalks up to one missed cell in Excel. Hail To The Victors! and Sparty On!, respectively.


  • Ummsu

    Note that University of Michigan and Michigan State University’s 4-year graduate rates are switched in the table.

  • Nobody

    This class is in no way helping anyone graduate any sooner. And this is not a first- or second-year course. Almost everyone in the class is a junior or senior Engineering student who is already loaded up with 24 hrs of work a day. By making it more “interactive,” they actually added a lot more time-consuming busy work to this class (huge projects with requirements that keep changing and grading rubrics that are unpredictable) which makes it frustrating for those of us who took the class because we were interested in learning about sustainability practices, only to end up devoting time and effort we don’t have toward passing this tech elective SO THAT we can graduate. Not a good idea to have seniors juggling with their Engineering GPAs over a tech elective. I’ve already advised many people not to waste their time with this class.

    I actually feel that Purdue has put more effort into preventing graduations rather than encouraging them. You’ve gotta remember, universities are not just schools, they’re more of businesses these days. And Purdue is an especially money hungry business as far as I’m concerned.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for your comment. Are you currently in this class?

      I do feel like your perspective was missing in the story. Why do you feel Purdue is putting more effort into “preventing graduations than encouraging them?” Is it a problem of financial aid? Academic support? Advising not getting students in the right courses? Where is the problem here?

      If you’d feel more comfortable contacting me off-blog, off-the-record, I’d be open to that too. With an on-time graduation rate at or about 40 percent at Purdue, I’m wondering if there are other students who feel just as you do. Even if you’re not interested, maybe you know someone who might be interested in sharing their experience (again, off-the-record)? I’d hope we could get your/their perspectives on the blog too.

      My e-mail address, open to all:

      ~Kyle Stokes

      • Purdue ME Student


        I am currently a student in Engineering Environment Sustainability, taught by Dr. Nies.

        I’m glad to hear you appreciate another perspective, and your article was very well written, don’t get me wrong. I am more than happy to share my viewpoint with readers, but would like to remain anonymous for now. It just humors me how Purdue is advertising some of these changes to classes as their solution to the four-year graduation rates being so low, when it seems like they really haven’t even delved into the true problem. In fact, their solution seems to be further complicating the problem.

        I feel that the low graduation rates are not so much due to students dropping out as they are due to students simply failing to graduate in four years because they become victims of the system. I cannot speak for all majors at Purdue because I do know many people who have graduated in four years, but they all have something in common: they aren’t in Engineering. According to Purdue, 23% of enrolled undergraduates are enrolled in the College of Engineering [1]. That’s about 7,000 undergraduates in Engineering. I think I can speak for many Engineering students when I say that it is very difficult to graduate in four years. Not only are exams based on speed rather than quality, but your mental and physical health deteriorates as you lose sleep trying to produce the amount of work the classes require, sometimes even to get a low grade anyways. I took one class, Machine Design I (ME 352) where I received a D in the course after submitting all of my homework as well as excelling on the draining, never-ending 80-hour projects. The reason I received the D was because I literally couldn’t write fast enough on the exams, although I knew how to do everything without even pausing to think. I decided to take the class again and only bumped up to a D+. I decided to just move on, but it is frustrating to feel like an expert in that topic but look at my transcript and see an embarrassing D and then a retake which resulted only in a D+. I feel so cheated for making such sacrifices for that class for virtually nothing in return. This would maybe be justifiable to me if Machine Design I, for example, was a freshman Engineering “weed-out” course, separating the Engineers from the Business majors, but I am talking about a junior year course with no curve. At this point we should be a little more respected and graded on our understanding, not our ability to write at the speed of sound.

        Another issue that occurs early on at Purdue, at least in Engineering, is that if you don’t have your schedule perfect your freshman year and one prerequisite is missing for the field of Engineering to which you plan to apply, your entire graduation date is set back by a semester. I am an undergraduate student in the School of Mechanical Engineering and I went through a hell my freshman year in trying to make sure I was taking the right classes. I was juggled between the Freshman Engineering counselors and the Mechanical Engineering counselor and getting different advice from everyone I talked to. It seemed like no one was listening to me. They confidently told me “You don’t need to take that right now. You don’t have time. Worry about this right now.” If I would question something at Freshman Engineering, they would tell me to go ask Mechanical Engineering. If I questioned something at Mechanical Engineering, they would tell me to go ask Freshman Engineering. Because of that, I am two semesters behind schedule because later, when I was in charge of my own scheduling, I realized that those two classes were literally the foundations of a prerequisite chain leading directly to my graduation date. Now, I meet only with the Mechanical Engineering advisor each semester and she still surprises me sometimes. Last semester I went in with the same Plan of Study as I have always had and she told me that there had been a mistake and I would have to stay for another summer. That “mistake” has been on the same Plan of Study she has been approving from me for the past four years.

        I also have another friend who is coming back to Purdue for another undergraduate major and wants to go into Mechanical Engineering. She spent an entire day running back and forth between the Admissions office, the Freshman Engineering office and the Mechanical Engineering office. Each of them gave her contradictory information and sent her away to pose her questions to another office – it’s a cyclic trap that I know all too well. Not to mention, she was treated like a nuisance for showing up at the Mechanical Engineering office asking for advice. The advisor in Mechanical Engineering is known for her mood swings and unprofessional venting emails to the whole school of Mechanical Engineering. Keep in mind, advisors of all three of the offices she was visiting do not prefer to deal with any of these types of issues through email; you always have to physically go to their offices and hope that they are there and available. Imagine trying to do this while enrolled with other time-consuming responsibilities such as class, homework, projects and weekly exams. Finally, the admissions office told her there is no way for her to start in Freshman Engineering since she has already received a degree from Purdue (shouldn’t that be counted towards her credibility?). Regardless of the fact that she was a 4.0 student in her last degree at Purdue, she was told that she will have to apply to the school of Liberal Arts for a semester, taking as many freshman engineering courses as possible and then CODO (transfer) into Freshman Engineering. This is another attractive little trick Purdue likes to use just to ensure from the get-go that students will be here for at least an extra semester. When I was a freshman, so many of my friends were coaxed into “starting out” in Liberal Arts and then transferring into Freshman Engineering because “that’s just the way it’s done.”

        I could go on and on; this is the tip of the iceberg with Purdue. It would be in my best interest to say only positive things about Purdue since the value of my degree is based on its reputation, but I have been pushed so far that I just feel like it is much more important to share the truth at this point. Therefore, I am happy to share. I may sound bitter, but I have only presented true information from my experiences and those around me and have not embellished anything.

        In retrospect, to simply answer your question, I feel that the true problem is a mix between advisors not getting students into the right courses early on and course loads being absolutely out of this world for a four-year graduation in Engineering, causing not only the repeat of classes and a delay in graduation, but embarrassments on our transcripts (Purdue stopped allowing students to “redline” failed, repeated courses on their transcripts a few years ago). With the number of hours I put into my major for a mediocre GPA, I could be attending med school from what I hear. Or maybe this is worse. Sleep is literally just a waste of time that we (at least Mechanical Engineers) have to deal with when we hit rock bottom.

        I also wanted to add that there are a small percentage of advisors within Engineering that actually take the time to work with their students, but it is a small percentage and it is definitely not the case in Mechanical Engineering, which accounts for about 850 undergraduate students [2]. Although many (including myself) in Dr. Nies’ class are complaining about his teaching approach and the class itself, I do know that he is also an advisor for the School of Civil Engineering. I have heard that he is an amazing advisor who is totally against the corporate approach of universities to keep students for as long as possible. I disagree that his class has anything to do with that but I do see how it could be presented to the public that way.

        If you have any more questions and you prefer to ask them in private, I have created an email address and posted it below so that I may remain anonymous. Otherwise, I am happy to share my opinions/experiences here.


        • Erin

          I am a recent Purdue ME graduate (BSME ’09) and it was really interesting reading this – I got a lot out of the comments. I probably count as a 5 year graduation student, but I co-oped. 7 semesters and 2 summers over the course of 5 years. I suspect that probably means I’m one of the ones who didn’t graduate in 4 and done. Wouldn’t change a thing though.

          I worked a lot with incoming freshman and we had started telling prospective students that it is very hard to graduate in 4 years and is most likely not worth it.

          As an alumni with a solid engineering job who gets to screen resumes every once in a while for job postings, I’d encourage engineers to spread their course work over 4.5 – 5 years if it’ll improve GPAs. We look at a GPA cutoff, then work experience. I’ve never looked at the amount of time it took someone to graduate.

        • StateImpact Indiana

          Thank you so much for being so thorough and thoughtful in your response. I’m going to send you an e-mail too here in a bit, but if you feel comfortable carrying out this discussion on-blog, I have more questions I’m interested in here:

          The academic environment you describe sounds *extremely* competitive, to a level that would rival law schools in their rigor. Anecdotally, I’ve heard of law students who’d also attended engineering school (they apparently wanted to do very technical legal work) who have said law school is easier… In that light, I’m wondering about that class you retook to bump your grade, if only slightly: What made for a successful student in that class? Who was getting the A’s in there? Were they testing better than their knowledge level?

          Your advisors: For how many students is each advisor responsible (# students / # advisors)? What kinds of communication are you receiving that’s “unprofessional”? To what do you attribute the advisors’ errors (such as the one in your plan)? Could it be that they’re dealing with constantly-changing standards and course tracks and are having trouble keeping up? Advisor issues are not uncommon at large state schools, and I’d imagine there’s a certain amount of give-and-take advisors experience — if students take the time to build relationships with advisors (to the extent possible, since they often change), won’t students be more likely to get assistance from that advisor?

          Also, what year are you in school? Are you on track to graduate in 4.5? 5 years? 5.5? (You mentioned staying an extra summer, that’s why I jumped to “4.5.”) And how much debt do you expect to incur in earning your degree?

          Again, my e-mail address is Happy to discuss by e-mail if you’d prefer.

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