One Size Doesn’t Fit All

one size doesnt fit all

I am not what is now regarded as an “on time” college graduate. Officially, I took four and a half years to complete my BA in English. Well into my senior year, I still had no idea what I was going to do when I graduated and basically panicked in the spring, leaving one course incomplete. So I couldn’t graduate in May. What I did do was follow the passion that my Anglo-Irish poetry classes had ignited that year—I had fallen in love with William Butler Yeats—and travel to the Yeats Summer School in Sligo, Ireland. There I met poets and scholars who shared a similar passion. So I applied to the Masters program at Trinity College, Dublin; went back to New York and finished my BA; went back to Ireland; and spent the next two years happily studying and, as it turned out, teaching. That extra time eventually led to a love of teaching and a 26-year teaching position in the Cockrell School of Engineering (but that’s another story).

I see versions of my own story played out every semester for my students. Engineering students regularly take more than four years to graduate, mostly because the degree programs are technically rigorous and gaining experience via an internship in the summer is seen as more important than taking summer courses. Elsewhere in the university, I see students who, like me, just don’t know until late in their college career what their enduring interests are or who realize that they have multiple interests that require more coursework or even another degree program.

Another reason students don’t graduate “on time” is that people do not all learn at the same rate in the same way. Kolb and other researchers have identified many learning styles that depend upon the individual’s preference for abstract conceptualization, concrete experience, reflective observation, or active experimentation. A student may enroll in one major—say, chemical engineering, because she enjoyed chemistry in high school—and then discover that the courses move too quickly, without adequate time for the reflective observation that it turns out her learning style prefers. So she switches to science communication and finds courses that better reflect both her interest in science and her learning style.

If students learn differently and at different paces, why would we expect that 70 percent of a cohort would graduate at the same time? President Bill Powers’ self-described “audacious goal” to move the university’s four-year completion rate from just over 50 percent to 70 percent by 2017 is laudable. More students finishing within four years means less debt for students and parents; more efficient use of university resources means a potential easing of the current budget crisis and more seats for students to enroll. And UT has put many programs and services in place to help students navigate the requirements of their degree plans and get academic and practical support where they need it. Resources are also now dedicated to using technology and research to provide, as the website puts it, “transformative approaches to teaching and learning.” All to the good. And perhaps if I had had access to these new approaches I would have found my way to teaching. But I doubt it. I simply had to get old enough, realistic enough, and engaged enough to see that “sort of” liking to write was not going to build a career for me.

The whole point of education is to help students ask questions by finding out what questions they want to ask. That takes time. Education is not job training, no matter what some of our higher-education governing bodies seem to think. Can UT succeed at raising the four-year graduation rate to 70 percent by 2017? For some, but not necessarily for 70 percent.

Hillary Hart is chair of UT’s Faculty Council.




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