Two-thirds of students who enrolled in the University of North Carolina system in 1996 did not graduate within four years, a recent report shows-but that's not as bad as it might sound.

"If anything, we are probably ahead of what we see in most public university systems," said Gary Barnes, UNC's vice president for program assessment and public service.

The 2001 Report on Retention, Graduation, and Time-to-Degree looked at the 16 schools in the UNC system. Of those schools, UNC-Chapel Hill had the highest four-year graduation rate, at 67 percent, while UNC-Pembroke had the lowest, with 17 percent. System-wide, the four-year graduation rate was 33 percent.

While at first glance these graduation rates seem very low-especially compared with Duke's four-year graduation rate of 86 percent-the UNC system seems to compare favorably with the public university systems from other states. For example, the University of Florida system has a 30 percent four-year rate.

UNC's 33 percent four-year graduation rate represents an eight-tenths of a point increase from the matriculating class of 1995. This is the fifth consecutive year the rate has increased.

A different report, released by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, whose Board of Directors is chaired by former Gov. James Hunt, gave North Carolina a B+ in "Completion Rates." North Carolina tied with Minnesota for seventh best in completion rates among all states.

Joni Finney, vice president of the National Center for Public Policy, said North Carolina's high-quality secondary education helped its students do well in college. However, she said, relatively few North Carolinians actually go on to college.

"What any state should do is look at their own data and see what their own data reveals about the strengths and weaknesses of the system," Finney said, stressing that individual states are best equipped to analyze and solve their own problems.

Barnes, the UNC vice president, said that once all the variables are taken into account, "many campuses [in the UNC system] with low retention rates do better than expected," meaning that their graduation rates are higher than their circumstances would predict. The most important factor in graduation rates is the retention rate, that is, the number of students who remain at the school after each year.

The retention rate for the UNC system as a whole from freshman to sophomore year is approximately 80 percent.

The education level of parents, family income, whether a student enrolls full time, whether the school is in an urban setting and whether students work during college, Barnes said, also determine graduation rate. The rate of work has been going up for some time, including last year, and can have a significant affect on students' studies or full-time status.

Traditionally, "low tuition has been used to deal with the financial burden of college, while need-based aid is fairly limited," Barnes said, adding that a new program could reduce the number of students who must work to pay for school. Finney said North Carolina's students have a higher amount of debt than many states, but that the state is doing relatively well overall.

There have been other initiatives to increase graduation rates, but the majority of these are done on an institution-by-institution basis, not by the Board of Governors. But "the board has certainly gone on the record to support higher graduation rates," Barnes said.

In 1994, the UNC Board of Governors limited to 128 the number of course hours that could be taken for graduation, and the result was what Barnes termed "a very significant improvement." Also, the basis on which courses could be dropped or repeated and the GPA needed to get into majors were examined.