Welcome, Freshmen! Enjoy Your (Four) Years Here

For the 2012 University of Texas at Austin freshman class, today marks the beginning of what we all hope will be a fulfilling four-year stint on the Forty Acres.

I emphasize the four because this year, perhaps more than any other, the pressure is on new students to complete a degree on time.

This is an appropriate pressure, the origins of which students would do well to understand going in.

There’s been lots of meaningful talk about higher education in Texas over the past two years. Our state leaders, our regents; we parents, students, faculty; and the citizens of Texas have been grappling with what higher education should look like.

What is the right balance between teaching and research, between access and excellence, between affordability and global competitiveness? And where exactly does The University of Texas at Austin, as a Tier 1 institution, fit on the spectrum of each of those oft-competing concerns?

Among the most clear-eyed commentators in this discussion has been Charles Miller, former chairman of the UT System Board of Regents. It was Miller who pointed out that the single biggest area for improvement for UT-Austin was in its four-year graduation rates, which stand in the low 50s.

Critics like to insist that the University has been asleep at the wheel when it comes to graduation rates, when that’s not the case. Since 1983, UT’s four-year graduation rate has jumped about 60 percent. Not bad, but the number can definitely keep improving given the high caliber of students UT-Austin gets handed each year.

In recent years, UT changed up its whole undergraduate curricular and created the School of Undergraduate Studies. Its intent was to improve the experience of undergraduates, particularly those who don’t arrive on the campus with firmed up notions of what they want to study, and to more smoothly move them through to graduation. So far, that project appears to be showing promise.

More recently, the University formed a task force on graduation rates that made a series of thoughtful recommendations, including overhauling the freshmen orientation to stress academics and, of course, graduating in four years.

All of this year’s freshmen went through that revamped orientation, and I can hardly imagine any of them not having a crystal-clear understanding that the expectation is to graduate and pronto. This class, in fact, has a target graduation rate of 70 percent. Ambitious!

Why does this matter? Because there are only so many spots at UT. And every time a student takes a victory lap, it means one less student can be admitted to that year’s freshman class. That might not seem like a proximate problem for incoming or current students, but at one time they too were high school students hoping to get a spot at UT-Austin.

I would be remiss not to mention that most academic rankings factor in graduation rates. The higher the graduation rate, the better the ranking. That also matters, both now and years later, when an alumnus becomes keenly aware of the value of his or her diploma.

By no means should today’s incoming freshmen read this as a screed; it’s meant instead to be encouragement.

I’m a firm believer that students, especially UT students, rise to expectations. I don’t know that UT has ever been explicit with its students that what’s expected is for freshmen to come in, learn to think and to reason, find out some things about themselves, then graduate—all in four great years.

Now that it is explicit, I have no doubt that this year’s class (even though it might turn out to be the largest in history) will hit its 70 percent graduation rate. That’s what the University expects, and that’s what the state of Texas expects.

So off you go, freshmen. Have a wonderful experience. Just do your best to make it a four-year jaunt.

Top: Freshmen experience a Gone to Texas welcome program. Courtesy UT Public Affairs. 


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