As freshmen take the first steps into their college careers this month, a team stretching across every inch of campus is aggressively working to make sure students graduate from UT in four years.
For the past few years, UT has made increasing its four-year graduation rates a top priority. At 52 percent, UT has the highest public four-year graduation rate in Texas but lags significantly behind its peer schools nationwide. UT hopes to increase its four-year graduation rates to 70 percent by 2016.
Each year reaps new efforts to increase graduation rates, and it is not an easy task for students or administrators.
"We are working to provide students with the tools and advising to help them make the best choices for their majors earlier in their college careers," says David Laude, senior vice provost for enrollment and graduation management. "Providing additional information on majors and career options is important for students to make informed decisions that are best for them."
Get more in four: An introduction
Some initiatives happen before students begin their first year, such as attending the mandatory new student orientation. At orientation, students become acquainted with the campus, get involved in the community and plan course schedules with advisers.
There are many steps a student can take to graduate in four years, including taking 15 hours per semester, taking online classes, enrolling in summer school and transferring credits from another institution, according to UT.
"For the first time, our incoming freshmen are hearing about the benefits of graduating in four years so they can make better decisions from the very beginning," Laude says.
One of the greatest barriers to timely graduation is failing to choose a pathway and major early on, says Dominic Chavez, spokesman for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Chavez says students often aimlessly explore the course catalog out of confusion.
Laude says graduating in four years brings economic benefits to the state, because it will get students into the workforce sooner and save students and parents money on tuition and loans. He says it also allows more students to attend UT as the state population grows.
Beginning this fall, every incoming freshman will be placed in a 360 Connection a small group of approximately 20 freshmen that meets regularly throughout the semester. UT officials said the program is meant to break down the university's large campus and classes into smaller communities to increase retention.
There are many different ways a first-year student can become involved on campus. Some take part in First-year Interest Groups, a group of 20 or so students that meets regularly and takes classes together. Other students can be involved in programs such as the Texas Interdisciplinary Plan, or their department's honors program.
Lisa Valdez, a program coordinator in the First-Year Experience Office, says 100 new FIGs have been added for fall 2013, bringing the total number of groups to 260 across campus.
"Over the years, we have noticed that students involved in FIGs are most successful, with higher GPAs and an increased rate of retention and four-year graduation compared to those that not enrolled in FIGs," Valdez says.
Other initiatives focus on ensuring students choose the right major early to avoid the extra costs of changing their majors, Laude says.
UT developed an online time-to-degree tool to help students stay on track when scheduling their courses. Students can use the tool to check their degree progress online using a color system that will tell them whether they are on track to graduate in four years.
According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, students graduate with 142 credit hours on average, even though most degrees only require 120.
Paying for college
University administrators have made a big talking point about the cost of tuition in advocating for four-year graduation, and UT is pumping $5 million in additional financial aid for students who demonstrate they are on track to graduate in four years.
Roughly 500 students are set to receive scholarships and financial assistance under the new initiative. Thomas Melecki, director of the Office of Student Financial Services, says the Dollars to Scholars program will randomly select 200 students this fall to receive $2,000 to pay their student loans if they successfully complete 30 credit hours with a C or better by spring 2014.
Over the next few years, students will also be able to earn up to $20,000 in loan forgiveness if they work an academic job on campus. Freshmen will be eligible to earn a $1,000 scholarship in their first year if they maintain a good GPA, complete leadership training and complete 30 hours their first year.
"Graduating in four years actually offers its own reward, which is significantly less debt," Melecki says.
On average, UT students incur $19,112 in debt if they graduate in four years. Fifth-year graduates incur $24,568 at graduation and sixth-year graduates owe close to $31,991 at graduation, according to the Office of Student Financial Services.
A stride to efficiency or one size fits all?
UT is one of the only state schools aiming to increase its four-year graduation rates to 70 percent, and its efforts have garnered praise and criticism.
State officials say graduating in four years helps the student and the economy, while critics say four-year graduation is a one-size-fits-all solution that should not be forced upon students.
Ann Kenimer, an associate provost for undergraduate studies at Texas AandM University in College Station, says Texas AandM has a campus-wide initiative called "Aggies Commit," which encourages students to take responsibility for their learning and to be very deliberate and intentional in how they plan their undergraduate program.
At 50 percent, Texas AandM has the second highest public four-year graduation rate in Texas.
However, Kenimer says Texas AandM understands that graduating in four years is not something all students can do.
"Since some of our undergraduate curricula, especially those in the STEM [science, technology, engineering, math] fields, require more than 120 hours, we recognize that some students may find it difficult to graduate in four years," Kenimer says.
Biochemistry junior Usman Dar says he feels UT is overlooking individual cases when pushing for four-year graduation.
Establishing a four-year goal also ignores the fact that most college students work at least one or two jobs, Dar says, which makes it difficult for them to take 15 credit hours a semester. He says the pressure to take more classes might compromise the quality of their education and overall college experience.
An ambitious but important goal
UT officials concede there will always be instances where a student requires more than four years to graduate, but say it is important that students seeking to graduate in four years have the resources to do so.
Chavez says improving the four-year graduation rate is a key performance metric that helps measure the best public and private schools in the country. By establishing a 70 percent goal, UT is already battling a culture that encourages students to take their time in college.
"Unfortunately, higher education has established six years as the default expectation for student graduation," Chavez says. "This has been ingrained in the higher education culture for decades. UT's goal to improve four-year graduation rates is a strong signal that the culture is going to change, and that will help this effort tremendously."
This story originally appeared in The Daily Texan.