At UT, a push for timely graduations

It's no surprise that the University of Texas at Austin wants to increase its four-year graduation rate. That's a clear way to boost productivity and lower college costs, especially at a flagship school where almost half the freshmen won't graduate on time.

What's unusual is UT's candor. In a report issued last week, after six months of research, officials wrote, "The type of institution we strive to be is neither a country club nor a commuter school, but our student behaviors indicate that they may believe otherwise."

It's common to tack on a fifth year, even a sixth, before getting a degree from UT -- and from most colleges in Texas. That drives up the costs and locks out others who want in. Changing that campus culture is likely to be a painful transition, the report said, but students have to get with it.

"They must understand that dillydallying is not to the benefit of their pocketbooks," the report concludes. "They must also be taught that their education is subsidized by the people of Texas, to whom they are responsible and to whom they owe a great debt."

How many parents have had that conversation with their college-bound children? How many advisers have warned against dillydallying to keep their students on track?

The UT report will be scrutinized for 60-odd recommendations to improve graduation rates. Many are practical enough to implement immediately (mandatory freshman orientation and closer tracking by advisers) and should have been adopted a decade ago.

But the report also merits attention because it recognizes that college is a limited resource. The steady increases in tuition and student debt underscore this economic reality, and they serve as a market signal to consumers and taxpayers: They're right to demand more for their money.

Getting a degree in four years is the low-hanging fruit in reforming higher education. The smarter the students (or the higher their SAT scores), the faster they graduate. This is often called college readiness, and it has the strongest correlation with high graduation rates, the report said.

But a little more attention to this performance detail could have a big impact. Private schools, known for their hands-on treatment and small classes, often do better on this measure.

UT Austin reported that about 51 percent of incoming freshmen graduated in four years. And that's the best showing among the state's public schools.

Texas A&M reported a 45 percent four-year graduation rate; UT Dallas 43 percent; the University of North Texas 19 percent; and UT Arlington 15 percent.

Those results are for the 2003 cohort, as reported to the National Center for Education Statistics in 2010.

More recent numbers from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board show an improvement of several percentage points for some of these schools.

The national figures are useful, because they allow comparisons that show just how much progress is possible. According to the same source, the University of Michigan had a four-year graduation rate of 73 percent; UCLA 67 percent; and Penn State 62 percent.

UT Austin has set a goal of 70 percent for its four-year graduation rate, starting with next fall's entering class. That's ambitious but not out of the question, considering that UT is ranked among the top public universities in the country.

Some investment will be required, primarily in more advisers and systems to better track student progress. But much of this starts with simply raising expectations. High-achieving students always expect to finish high school in four years. Why should college be different?

Most UT students also have college credit from Advanced Placement and dual-credit courses, and a chance to pump up hours with summer school. If four-year graduation is a priority, it's within reach for many.

UT staffers visited UCLA, Penn State, Michigan and the University of Florida to learn how they boosted results.

"In some instances, we've committed outright theft of their methods," the report said.

Florida, for example, constantly reinforces that students must finish on time. So UT's message at this summer's freshman orientation will be, "How to make the most of your four years."

Michigan freshmen must attend orientation, and Michigan and Penn State each host more than 30 orientation sessions during the summer. That compares with 10 at UT, the report said. UT President Bill Powers has now approved mandatory orientation for incoming students.

Florida doesn't permit students to declare a major unless it can be completed in four years, which prompted a similar proposal for UT. Many students delay their choice of a major, hoping to get into a more selective college at UT, but they get off track.

In 2001, UCLA started a formal program to closely monitor student progress toward degrees. The plan was implemented swiftly and across majors, despite protests. When students fall behind, they're automatically barred from the library and recreation center until they meet with an adviser to resolve the matter.

Ten years later, graduation rates had improved by more than 15 percent and the rules had become accepted, the report said.

"We're looking at these issues in a whole different light," said Kim Krieg, assistant dean of student affairs at UT's College of Liberal Arts. "This will require a culture shift for advisers, too."

Students often have difficulty selecting a major, and college has been widely viewed as an ideal place to explore options and discover new passions. But making a call -- and doing it in a timely fashion -- is an important part of growing up.

"Being forced to make that choice develops practical wisdom in a young person," said Thomas Lindsay, former provost at the University of Dallas.

Lindsay is director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the conservative think tank that challenged UT's productivity last year. That scrutiny pushed the university to re-examine its approach to graduation rates.

UT's conclusions aren't groundbreaking. But if they can change the culture in Austin, why not the rest of the state?

Mitchell Schnurman's column appears Sundays and Thursdays. 817-390-7821

Twitter: @mitchschnurman