Making Super-Seniors Obsolete

The goal is audacious, and the approach is classic higher ed.

The University of Texas at Austin has set itself a goal of raising its four-year graduation rate from 52 to 70 percent within five years. This big goal addresses college affordability for current students, of course (an issue being pushed by politicians from the U.S. president on down). But it also strikes at the heart of the value of a UT degree for alumni.

For such a large institution, UT is moving toward 70 percent in a fascinatingly open way. A PR firm would have dreamed up strategies behind closed doors, then reviewed them endlessly with studies and focus groups to see which ones tested best.

In the spirit of academic discourse, however, UT took a more open, free-thinking approach. Last fall President Bill Powers assigned a faculty-student task force to generate as many ideas as possible—and share them publicly. In February the group did just that, releasing a 114-page report packed with 60 recommendations. Ideas ranged from appointing a grad-rate “champion” to increasing tuition for students who go over the required number of credits.

With so many possibilities on the table, it was easy to see that some were weak, others weren’t financially feasible, and still others would have unintended consequences. Requiring all freshmen to live on campus, for instance, could be expensive since only 67 percent of freshmen currently do (and since UT has a long tradition of off-campus dorms). And making it more difficult to change majors could leave thousands of young grads marooned in careers they might hate.

There was an irony behind the report. Despite all the talk of college’s rising cost, UT’s very affordability—particularly compared to $50,000-per-year private institutions of similar caliber—is what allows students to stay five years if they want to. Many talented Texas students, including 2011-12 student body president Natalie Butler, consider an internship, change of major, or semester abroad worth the extra tuition. The quickest way to send UT’s graduation rates rocketing would be to make tuition as high as a private school’s.

Thankfully, a dramatic tuition hike is neither politically tenable nor desirable. And so UT is charging toward 70 percent with that same transparency and open-mindedness that’s so fitting for higher ed, putting smart people in charge and letting them think freely about how to reach their goals.

The University is also doing something that’s harder for a huge institution: working fast. The freshmen entering this fall will be the cohort to prove whether 70 percent can graduate within four years. So UT is swinging into action this summer.

President Powers tapped associate Liberal Arts dean Marc Musick, BA ’92, Life Member, to lead this first charge. In April, Musick became a special adviser on the effort—a “proto-grad-rate champion,” as he puts it. His first order: make freshman orientation mandatory and more focused on academics.

Considering that orientation sessions begin in June and will now involve all 7,000 incoming students, that’s a tall order. Musick is still working out the details. His first idea is to give the cohort a sense of identity as the Class of 2016, telling them that their graduation date is set for May 8, 2016. His next is to get University employees charged up about hitting 70 percent, because they have a part to play, too.

UT alumni and supporters should be charged up as well. Even those of us who aren’t paying tuition bills are invested. Grad rates, after all, figure into college rankings; rankings in turn affect the value of a degree. UT has marched up the rankings steadily in recent years, but a higher four-year graduation rate could thrust it further upward, making a Texas degree more prized. (In addition, of course, to pleasing everyone concerned about the cost of higher education).

But is hitting 70 percent within five years truly doable? Musick’s response is also classic higher ed: measured, honest, and open. “I don’t know,” he says, “because there are factors beyond our control. But we’re going to try. I love this place, and I’ll do whatever I can to make it great. I’m going to be tired, I’m going to work my fingers to the bone, I’m going to push people to do things they didn’t think they could do. We will lay that foundation and build on it over time.”

The clock starts ticking now.

Charge ahead,





Lynn Freehill, Editor




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