By Jens Manuel Krogstad for the Des Moines Register 
Fewer than half of students at Iowa’s public universities finish school in four years, although graduation rates have been creeping up in recent years, according to a new annual report released Thursday.
A broad national push to boost graduation rates is under way to raise the number of U.S. college graduates. Increasing the education level of Americans is necessary to keep the nation competitive in a global economy, state and federal officials say. Rising student debt is another oft-cited concern.
Iowa’s universities boast graduation rates above the national average, but have produced mixed results in pursuit of goals set by the Iowa Board of Regents, which governs the universities.
Iowa State University, at 39.5 percent, and University of Northern Iowa, at 37.8 percent, have yet to reach four-year graduation rate targets of 41.4 and 38.4 percent, respectively. The figures were released by the regents board, scheduled to meet Wednesday at ISU in Ames.
The University of Iowa, where more than 48 percent of students finish school in four years, performed the best. Its graduation rate is just shy of a 48.3 percent goal. The regents want each university to achieve its graduation goals by 2016.
U of I and ISU have increased the six-year graduation rates of minority students over the past two years, each to 63.4 percent. UNI, though, has seen its number slightly dip to 44.6 percent. Minority students graduate at a significantly lower rate than their white counterparts. More than 70 percent of non-minority students finish school in six years, the report said.
To push up graduation rates, the universities have started programs to reduce the number of college dropouts, started data analysis that tracks individual student progress and made it easier for students to transfer from community colleges.
“We are putting significant effort into retention, making sure our students graduate on time, and closing the (minority achievement) gap,” U of I Provost Barry Butler said.
President Barack Obama has said that by 2020, he wants the U.S. to have the highest proportion of college graduates of any nation in the world. Universities must dramatically improve graduation rates if the number of young Americans with a degree — those ages 25 to 34 — is to rise from 43 to 55 percent, according to the College Board, a nonprofit in New York City that promotes education.
Some states have sought to tie public funding to graduation rates. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has received national attention for urging state university leaders to offer more four-year bachelor’s degrees that cost $10,000 or less.
Students, however, sometimes prefer to pay more to stay in school longer. Internships, semesters abroad and demanding majors like engineering are all common reasons for not graduating in four years, students and university officials said.
Jonathan Krupko, 22, said he stayed an extra year at the U of I because he spent a year abroad in Japan. He hopes to pair his foreign language skills with a degree in finance.
“The year in Japan was probably the best decision I made,” said Krupko, a Des Moines native. “It got me to see a different perspective in the world.”
Steve Goedken, 23, said he’s staying an extra semester at ISU because he switched majors, from music education to economics, and took a semester off to complete an internship. Goedken said he didn’t mind taking extra time to find his passion, though he acknowledged he’s fortunate to have no student debt.
Jordan Bancroft-Smithe, 23, said he doesn’t mind that his fifth year at UNI has cost him about $15,000 in student loans. A generous scholarship that ran out after four years, he said, enabled him to spend a summer in Greece and pursue a double major in music and philosophy.
“It allowed me to take out loans to study abroad and stay a fifth year, rather than rushing through,” he said.