Graduation rate compared with admission standards:
* UNC Wilmington: 65 percent, highly competitive
* Appalachian State: 63 percent, highly competitive
* Murray State University: 50 percent, highly competitive
* Western Carolina University: 48 percent, competitive
* University of West Florida: 48 percent, competitive
* Louisiana Tech: 47 percent, competitive
* University of North Florida: 46 percent, highly competitive
* Sam Houston State University: 44 percent, competitive
* UTC: 42 percent, competitive
* University of Arkansas Little Rock: 20 percent, noncompetitive
Source: American Enterprise Institution, peers named in UT documents
Like many regional universities with lower admissions standards, UTC accepts many students who might not get into other schools.
But once it gets them in, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga struggles to get them out with degrees.
UTC graduates only 42 percent of its students, far below the graduation rate of schools with similar admission standards, a new study shows.
"Schools often blame their students, saying that they are not well prepared and that their school's mission is take unprepared students and give them a chance," said Mark Schneider, vice president at the American Institutes for Research and author of the Diploma and Dropouts report.
"The problem with that argument is that there are schools that take on the same kind of students and are graduating many more of them," he said.
The report, commissioned by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, shows that high acceptance rates are directly related to low graduation rates, he said.
UTC, which has one of the lower graduation rates in the state, has an acceptance rate of 78.7 percent, almost 10 percent higher than the state average, according to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
UTC Chancellor Roger Brown said administrators are concerned about the low number of students earning diplomas. In June, the UT board of trustees approved a modest increase in admission standards at UTC. The minimum grade point average will rise from 2.0 to 2.3, and the ACT score requirement will increase from 17 to 18.
Dr. Brown said admission standards will continue to creep up in coming years.
"Our acceptance rate will gradually decline," he said.
The Diplomas and Dropouts report classifies universities as having noncompetitive, less competitive, competitive, very competitive, highly competitive and most competitive admission requirements. In the study, 660 schools are classified as competitive, UTC among them.
UTC also is among 322 schools in that classification that fall below the groups' average graduation rate of 48.6 percent.
"You are talking about being lower than a fairly low number," Mr. Schneider said.
The University of Tennessee at Martin, which has a lower acceptance rate of 75.8 percent, has a graduation rate of 44 percent, 2 percentage points higher than UTC's.
One method of improving graduation rates is to set an enrollment cap on admissions. By limiting the number of students admitted each semester, officials are forced to choose more-qualified applicants.
Such caps also are used when a school has limited space.
But Dr. Brown said UTC officials are not ready to enforce an enrollment cap.
The UTC campus - with a student population hovering around 10,000 - has room for about 12,500 students, he said.
Poor graduation rates are a growing problem nationwide, and one that taxpayers and students should be concerned about, Mr. Schneider said.
In Tennessee, more than 30 percent of colleges' and universities' budgets are provided by the state. And tuition for students continues to rise. This fall students across the state will be seeing 5 percent, 7 percent or 9 percent mark-ups in tuition cost.
Still, Tennessee colleges on average don't graduate half the students they admit.
As lawmakers begin to put more pressure on schools to improve their graduation rates, Mr. Schneider said colleges need to be careful not to ease up on standards and give out "worthless degrees."
He said college administrators should focus their energy on increasing admission standards and reaching out to struggling students.
And consumers should be careful to weigh graduation rates in their choice to attend a college, he said.
"What we need to do is pay attention to this," Mr. Schneider said. "Parents should know (about graduation rates) before they pack their kids off."