The front door to Arizona's universities is nearly wide open.

The UA accepted 78 percent of all applicants, and Arizona State University took 90 percent, according to data for 2009-10.

That seems like a good thing for a taxpayer-supported university. Better-educated people earn more over their lifetime and enjoy a higher quality of life. Qualified applicants ought to have a chance to earn a college degree.

There's a potential downside to accepting so many students, though, and our two big state schools suffer from it.

Both the graduation rates and the retention rates - the percentage of freshmen who return for a second year - are anemic.

The percentage of students who graduated within six years is 58 at the UA and 56 at ASU. The UA retains 78 percent of first-year students, while ASU keeps 81 percent.

Simply put, the Arizona Board of Regents, which governs the universities, and the university presidents have decided to admit a contingent of students who statistics show will wash out.

Regent Dennis DeConcini, a Tucsonan and former U.S. senator, said he supports a generous admissions policy.

"Public universities are the greatest thing we have in this country for advancement," DeConcini said.

He makes the point that it's impossible to tell which mediocre applicants will buckle down and do well in college.

We all know someone - or we were that kid - who didn't take school seriously until he got to college. In the end, each student bears primary responsibility for his or her own success.

At the same time, it's clear that the UA and ASU need to improve the ways they advise and support students. No bragging rights come with a 58 percent graduation rate.

What does success look like? The UA's strategic plan calls for a retention rate of 83 percent and a graduation rate of 61 percent by 2014.

It's going to be a challenge to get there. The retention trend over the past four years was 79, 80, 79, 78. The percentage of students who graduated within six years was 59, 56, 57, 58.

Melissa Vito, the UA's vice president for student affairs, said improving retention is the No. 1 rallying cry in her division.

In the past two years programs have been added or expanded, she said. For example, there is more tutoring for students in large, entry-level classes where performance lags. There are more mentors and peer advisers, workshops to prepare students for college and financial support to make sure students don't quit because they fear taking on too much debt. The UA is also doing more data analysis to understand which support methods work best, she said.

Tom Anderes, the new president of the regents, said he expects the board this fall to put a greater focus on retention and graduation. He came from the University of Wisconsin system, whose flagship school the UA considers a peer.

Beyond its own goals, another measure of the UA's success is how it compares with those peers. The regents have chosen 15 peer universities. (ASU isn't one of them, but the accompanying chart includes ASU because many Tucsonans have ties to that school.)

At some level, it's easy to see how they are equals. They're big public schools with a strong focus on research and broad offerings of degree programs.

Most of them, however, are considerably more selective in admissions. When UCLA accepts the cream of the crop, it's hardly surprising that it retains and graduates a high percentage.

It's also true that most peers charge much higher tuition and have larger endowments to fund their programs and facilities. North Carolina's endowment is $1.9 billion and Iowa's is $810 million. The UA's is $436 million.

By some measures, the UA may aspire to achieve the success of these 15, but it isn't in their league now.

One of the biggest goals our state universities have set for themselves is to dramatically increase the number of adults who have degrees. In 2008, a quarter of Arizonans 25 and older held at least bachelor's degrees.

To give employers the work force they need and to stimulate demand for higher-paying jobs, the schools aim to increase production of baccalaureate degrees by 50 percent by 2020.

The state is trending ahead of that goal, according to figures provided by Katie Paquet, associate vice president for public affairs and external relations for the regents.

Across the university system, which includes Northern Arizona University, degree production was up 9 percent from 2007-2009, to 20,294. Systemwide, undergraduate enrollment increased 7.2 percent and the graduation rate was up 2.4 percent.

That's good news, especially at a time when students are paying more and state budget cuts have made it harder for the universities to meet more needs.

More students are deciding to walk through the front door. We must not be satisfied until many more than 58 percent turn that opportunity into degrees.

Arizona Daily Star

How the UA ranks among its peers

U.S. News In-state tuition Applicants Freshmen 4-yr. 6-yr. Student to Undergrads with Av. percentage Name Rank and fees accepted who return grad rate grad rate faculty ratio financial need of need met

U. California-Los Angeles 2 $10,781 22% 97% 67% 89% 16/1 88% 83%

U. North Carolina 5 $6,665 32% 96% 74% 87% 14/1 51% 100%

U. California-Davis 9 $11,984 46% 92% 50% 81% 16/1 84% 82%

U. Washington 11 $8,701 58% 93% M 81% 12.5/1 M M

U. Texas, Austin 13 $9,418 45% 92% 51% 81% 17/1 72% 75%

U. Wisconsin, Madison 13 $9,050 57% 94% 50% 82% 17/1 64% 78%

Penn State 15 $15,250 52% 93% 62% 85% 17/1 76% 64%

U. Illinois, Champaign 15 $13,640 65% 93% 64% 82% 16/1 75% 69%

U. Florida, Gainesville 17 $5,020 42% 96% 58% 82% 20/1 78% M

Ohio State 18 $9,420 76% 92% 46% 75% 12/ 1 79% 57%

U. Maryland, College Park 18 $8,416 42% 93% 63% 82% 19/1 72% 56%

Texas A&M 22 $8,387 67% 92% 45% 80% 19/1 69% 87%

U. Minnesota, Twin Cities 23 $11,293 50% 90% *41% *66% 21/1 74% 83%

U. Iowa 29 $7,417 83% 83% 42% 69% 15/1 76% 62%

Michigan State 34 $11,434 73% 91% 49% 77% 16/1 75% 66%

U. Arizona 58 $6,855 78% 78% 32% 58% 19.7/1 73% 64%

Arizona State 72 $7,661 90% 81% 30% 56% 23/1 81% 60%

SOURCE: Common Data Set, 2009-10. U.S. News & World Report refers to that magazine's widely read annual ranking of 164 public universities. Tuition from '09-'10. * Based on '02 freshmen, vs.'03 for all other schools. M = Data missing