Ralph K.M. Haurwitz firstname.lastname@example.org
Publication Date: June 7, 2012 Page: B01 Section: METRO Edition: Final
Bill Powers, president of the University of Texas, flashed the hook 'em sign, then welcomed a group of incoming freshmen with a not-so-subtle message Wednesday:
"You are in for a tremendous four-year experience here."
UT is pulling out all the stops to raise its graduation rates, and the class of 2016 is Exhibit A. If the university meets the goal Powers set last year, at least 70 percent of this fall's first-time-in-college freshmen will earn a degree within four years.
That would be a dramatic improvement for a campus whose culture has long tolerated a more casual approach to the pace of education. UT's graduation rate has ranged from 45.6 to 52.6 percent in the past several years. Its most recent graduation rate, 50.9 percent for the class of 2011, is the highest among the state's 38 public universities, but some top-tier public universities in other states do considerably better.
UT officials are determined to change the culture. In part, they are motivated by a desire to cut costs - for students, their families and the university. There is also a political component: Members of the UT System Board of Regents, all of whom were appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, have been pressing the Austin flagship and other system campuses for several years to boost graduation rates.
The university has retooled freshman orientation to put a stronger emphasis on academics. For example, a session on the transition from high school academics to college-level work, which used to be optional, is now mandatory.
Even the swag conveys the new emphasis. Messenger bags, T-shirts, the orientation guide and other handouts all bear a logo for the class of 2016.
"We're really going all out on the logo," said Mark Musick, an associate dean for liberal arts who was put in charge of orientation this year. "They're going to be inundated with these messages."
Powers wasn't overbearing in his remarks to about 1,200 freshmen gathered at Hogg Auditorium at the start of their three-day orientation. He spoke of the power of university life to transform a young person intellectually and socially. And he said the university was stepping up advising, expanding its course offerings and taking other steps to help students navigate their path.
Justin Kosley, a student from Sugar Land who plans to major in chemical engineering, said he was confident of graduating in four years. Mostly, he was just glad to be on campus.
"My goal has always been to come here," he said. "I was raised a Longhorn. My parents both went here."
Contact Ralph K.M. Haurwitz at 445-3604
Path to a degree
UT tracks the percentage of first-time-in-college freshmen in each incoming class who graduate in four years. Here are the rates for recent entering classes:
Source: University of Texas
Ralph K.M. Haurwitz
Publication Date: February 12, 2013 Page: B01 Section: METRO Edition: Final
The need to increase graduation rates - a running theme of higher education policy in Texas for several years - is an increasingly urgent nationwide concern, according to college and university leaders who met Monday in Austin.
An open letter last month from the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment, a group of higher education leaders, called on their colleagues to make student retention and degree completion a top priority to "stem the unacceptable loss of human potential."
There is also a political calculation to the increased urgency, said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, one of several higher education groups that convened the commission. The Obama administration has made it clear that it would act if college leaders don't, Broad said during a panel discussion at the University of Texas.
UT's four-year graduation rate, about 52 percent, is the highest among Texas' 38 public universities but lags behind that of a number of major research universities in other states. UT President Bill Powers has set a goal of 70 percent by 2016.
The university's efforts include stepped-up freshman orientation to reshape a campus culture that has long tolerated a more leisurely trajectory to graduation; the appointment of a senior vice provost to champion the four-year graduation cause; and the allotment of $5 million to encourage students to finish on time, with some of that money earmarked for financial aid to those making steady academic progress.
E. Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University and chairman of the national commission, said college leaders are being urged "to get moving" on boosting completion rates, with the details left up to each campus.
One complication is that graduation rates don't provide a full picture for every school. At UT-El Paso, for example, 70 percent of graduating students are not counted in the graduation rate because they didn't start their studies at the university, said President Diana Natalicio, a member of the national commission.
The rising expectations come at a time of tight budgets. The cancellation of federal Pell grants for summer study was "devastating" to students at UT-El Paso, where a third hail from families with annual incomes of $20,000 or less, Natalicio said.
More and more students entering higher education, including many from middle-class families, need financial aid, said George Martin, president of St. Edward's University and a representative of private schools on the national commission.
The Texas Grant, the state's main form of financial aid, covers only a fraction of students who meet income and academic standards, and lawmakers may impose more stringent academic standards.
Lawmakers also are reviewing a proposal to link a portion of each school's state appropriation to course completions, graduation rates and other performance measures.
Contact Ralph K.M. Haurwitz at 445-3604.