The key to raising four-year graduation rates at The University of Texas at Austin is enhancing freshman orientation and the first-year experience to better emphasize academics and improving advising and student tracking, according to a newly released task force report.
The Task Force on Undergraduate Graduation Rates was formed last year to develop strategies to ensure that 70 percent of undergraduate students earn their degrees within four years by 2016. It has spent the past six months interviewing students, faculty and advisers, reviewing data trends, and studying other successful universities.
"An easy way to improve graduation rates is to water down the course curriculum, but we entirely reject such an approach. Rather, the solutions to the graduation rate problem must be found in ways that keep the high quality of the educational mission intact," wrote College of Liberal Arts Dean Randy L. Diehl, who chaired the 14-member committee.
Currently, about half of all undergraduates earn a degree within four years. That rate is higher than at any other public college or university in Texas but lower than at several peer, public research universities around the nation. About 75 percent of University of Texas at Austin students graduate in five years and more than 80 percent graduate within six years.
The task force offers more than 60 specific recommendations that encourage students to earn degrees more quickly and avoid staying on campus longer than needed, such as:
- requiring orientation for all incoming first-year students;
- creating an online tool to better allow students and advisers to monitor progress to a degree;
- developing more intervention programs to identify and assist students in academic jeopardy;
- identifying "bottleneck" courses where limited seats can create challenges for students pursuing a required path to graduation;
- helping students commit to a major and avoid adding a second major if requirements cannot be met in four years;
- creating flat-rate summer tuition to encourage students to take more courses;
- increasing tuition for students who have not graduated despite earning more than the required number of credits.
When students graduate in four years, they begin their careers or graduate education sooner while incurring less debt. Their parents save money on tuition and cost of living. The university gains additional capacity for new students. And the state develops well-educated citizens who can serve individual communities and contribute to the economy immediately.
"Timely graduation benefits every constituent in the educational chain, from parents and students to professors and administrators," said University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers, who will review the report in the coming days. "What's more, it represents a major savings for students in an age of concern over rising costs."
Powers will be able to implement some of the recommendations immediately. Others must be pursued over the long term and could require changing university policy or identifying new resources, though potential costs have not been determined yet.
To help ensure that this multifaceted strategy is implemented effectively, the task force recommends that Powers appoint a university employee to serve as a graduation rate champion for three to five years to spearhead and coordinate these efforts.
The task force's work is in line with the Framework for Advancing Excellence approved last year by University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and the Board of Regents. The plan calls for all UT institutions "to become top performers in four-year graduation rates" and empowers individual campuses to find the best ways to achieve that goal.
For more information, visit the Raising Our Graduation Rates website.