In his State of the Union address last month President Obama put universities on notice that if they couldn’t hold tuition down, the federal government would withhold support. I share the president’s concern, as should we all.
The remedies for the high cost of college will be controversial and will vary from place to place. But a good first step we all can agree on is that students should stop buying more college than they need.
Students inflate the cost of college by enrolling in more courses than their degrees require. National data show that students in Texas graduate, on average, with 149 credit hours, the most in the nation.
That’s a full year of excess credit. To fix this, administrators must make the pursuit of a degree user-friendly and students must progress with greater focus and urgency.
But, of course, tuition is only a fraction of the cost of college; the cost of living is often an equal or greater expense—ramen noodles notwithstanding. While excess credit can be measured in total semester hours, slow progress can be measured by how many students take longer than four years to graduate.
Among America’s 120 public research universities, the four-year graduation rate ranges from an outlier 84 percent at the University of Virginia to 3 percent, with 27 universities graduating fewer than 20 percent of their students in four years.
At our university, half of students graduate in four years, and 81 percent graduate within six. If, by a combination of incentives and streamlining, we can increase our four-year rate to 70 percent, it will bestow blessings in three major areas: It will relieve the burden to students and their parents of an extended period during which they must pay the cost of living while not fully employed. The state will win because timely graduation allows a university to serve more students. And finally, the university itself will win by cutting down on administrative friction generated by excessive switching of majors and other inefficiencies.
Some might object to the emphasis on timely graduation on the grounds that many students take longer because they must work. However, conventional wisdom suggests the smarter strategy is to take a loan if need be, buckle down full-time to get through quickly, and hasten the higher earning that results from a degree and full-time employment.
For those who must serve two masters—many for legitimate reasons—there are many universities willing to admit them on their own timetables. We simply believe, and the data show, that timely graduation is an intrinsic feature of a first-class education and that the one is virtually always accompanied by the other for good reason.
This month, we released the report of an internal task force recommending ways to increase four-year graduation. We’re implementing some recommendations right away, such as making freshman orientation mandatory and requiring every new student to establish a four-year graduation strategy. Other recommendations, such as limiting the number of times a student can switch majors, or only allowing degree changes that will not delay graduation, will require faculty feedback or more gradual execution.
But the issue of timely graduation is as serious as any other in higher education. We wouldn’t voluntarily pay 20 percent extra for a car, a house, or any other major purchase. University leaders must first smooth the path for timely graduation by taking a hard look at degree requirements and ensuring students can get the classes they need. Then, for students’ own good, we must be bolder in pushing them out of the nest.
Bill Powers has been president of The University of Texas since 2006.
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