More than one-third of students who start out as freshmen at Pennsylvania's 14 state universities drop out before they reach junior year - a statistic that hinders the viability of the system, which has bled enrollment in recent years.
"We simply have to do better," said Frank T. Brogan, who on Oct. 1 will mark his one-year anniversary as chancellor of the 112,000-student Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.
Brogan knows money woes, academic struggles, and family issues are among the reasons students take a break or drop out altogether, but to address the problem, he says a deeper understanding is needed. He said he intended to create a systemwide survey, or "exit interview," for every student who leaves to further the system's understanding.
"The freshman rate isn't too bad. My concern is that it really hits home in the upper division," Brogan said. "That's where we're seeing a melt rate that in my opinion is unacceptable."
The system's most recent records show just 37 percent of students graduate in four years, with 55 percent graduating in six years. Rates vary greatly among the colleges.
Slippery Rock has the best four-year graduation rate, with nearly 50 percent of its students finishing, while Cheyney, a historically black university in Chester and Delaware Counties, had the worst, just 11 percent. West Chester's rate is 44 percent.
West Chester tops the list for the most recent six-year graduation rate, with 68 percent finishing, while Cheyney was last - only one in five students graduated within six years.
Brogan acknowledged the system's graduation and retention rates aren't much different from those of peer schools. In fact, they're a little better.
But that's no comfort to Brogan.
"We have got to find out why they are leaving and deal with those issues," he said.
He made his declaration during an interview while preparing to begin his second year. He also announced plans to overhaul general education requirements for the system - a process that will begin in the spring - and delve deeply in the fall into how the colleges are providing online learning.
He acknowledged controlling costs remained a priority. The system has looked at a fixed tuition rate for each incoming freshman class, a tactic some other schools, including Lincoln University, have tried as a way to help students plan for four years of paying for college. But he said it likely would be too costly, considering the flat state funding the system has received in recent years.
"We're running the numbers on all of this to see if those things are possible," he said.
Before the school year is out, he said, the system will revisit the possibility of a systemwide policy that would regulate the carrying of guns on campus. In January, the system's board of governors delayed consideration of a policy that would allow guns on open areas of campus, such as sidewalks and parking lots. Each campus now sets its own policy.
Seven of the campuses - California, Edinboro, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Millersville, Shippensburg, and Slippery Rock - allow guns to be carried in some areas. West Chester, Cheyney, East Stroudsburg, Bloomsburg, Clarion, Indiana, and Mansfield have total bans.
"We've been reviewing policies from other universities around the country," Brogan said. "To say it's a mixed bag out there is an understatement."
The system also plans to work more closely with the presidents of the state's 14 community colleges to streamline transfer of their students into the state universities, he said.
This month, for the first time, the presidents and provosts of all the state universities and community colleges met to discuss improving the process, Brogan said.
"We want it to be airtight," he said.