At Grad Rates Forum, Calls for Small Steps Toward Big Change

Photo by Michelle Bryant

The message was clear at Tuesday evening’s open forum on graduation rates: The University of Texas at Austin must create innovative new ways to graduate students in four years without sacrificing excellence.

“In order to boost graduation rates, we are going to have to be innovative,” said Randy L. Diehl, dean of the College of Liberal Arts. “Sacrificing the curriculum is not an option.”

This summer, Diehl was appointed by President Bill Powers to chair a task force of 10 faculty and five students. The goal is to increase UT’s current four-year graduation rate of 52 percent to 70 percent over the next five years. This change will make UT’s rates more competitive with peer universities, such as the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Michigan.

Diehl and Marc Musick, associate dean of student affairs for the College of Liberal Arts, were hosted by the Liberal Arts Council and Senate of College Councils. Much of the evening involved a conversation with about 100 students and others who offered ideas for raising graduation rates.

Diehl began the evening by outlining some of the barriers he has identified so far and by asking students for their input. He posed the question: How do we convince students and their families that graduating in four years is important?

“We estimate that additional year in school may be costing students and their families at least $20,000,” Diehl says. “It’s also costing the taxpayers of Texas. We’ve got to figure out ways to keep costs down.”

Financial factors include living expenses and lost opportunity costs such as wages, especially given that employees with college degrees are more marketable in the workplace. Students pursuing advanced degrees could also save costs by shortening their time in school.

Musick, who has an extensive quantitative research background as a sociologist and Population Research Center affiliate, suggests targeting students who may be one semester over or those who fall in the five-year graduation category.

“The goal can be achieved by minor shifts,” says Musick who serves as a data analyst for the task force. “We are not talking about moving from graduating in six years to four years.”

He cites research that students who are better academically and socially integrated, such as study abroad and internship participants, actually do better and earn their degrees faster.

“We are doing something that has never been done before,” says Diehl of the task force’s mission. “I’m utterly committed to providing recommendations that make an impact, but it’s going to take the support of everyone.”


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