Partly in response to outside criticism that its four-year graduation rate of 50 percent is too low, the University of Texas at Austin outlined a number of ambitious proposals Wednesday aiming to raise that measure by 20 points for its next class of entering freshmen.
The plan , created by a 14-member student and faculty committee, gives more than 60 specific recommendations that include creating space in “bottleneck” courses such as science labs or key prerequisite courses where there aren't enough seats to meet student demand, making freshman orientation mandatory and cracking down on students who stay longer than needed to graduate or who change majors as upperclassmen.
The 111-page document criticizes a campus culture in which delayed graduation is widely accepted and proposes selective enforcement of a state “slacker law” that allows the university to charge out-of-state tuition to Texas residents who have 30 or more credits beyond what is needed for a degree yet don't apply for graduation. The "slacker law" would have affected 24 percent of students in the class of 2004, the year the committee used for its study.
While Texas’s four-year graduation rate of 50 percent is lower than that of many of its peers, about 80 percent of first-time students earn their degree within six years. Committee members visited several other flagship universities, including Pennsylvania State University, with a 62 percent four-year graduation rate, and the University of Florida, which graduates 59 percent of its students on time. By cutting out those extra semesters and boosting the four-year rate to 70 percent, President Bill Powers said, Texas students will graduate with less debt and the university will make more efficient use of taxpayer money.
“Few actions we could take as a university would benefit students, parents and the university itself as much as increasing our four-year graduation rate,” Powers wrote Wednesday in a campuswide e-mail.
Among the issues drawing questions in a teleconference with reporters were recommendations that students not be allowed to switch degree programs after their sophomore year and that they should be discouraged from adding a second major if that would slow graduation. Randy Diehl, committee chair and dean of the College of Liberal Arts, said the proposals were meant to be guidelines, and adjustments could be made based on individual circumstances.
Administrators will now consider the recommendations, many of which will have to be carried out immediately if Texas is to graduate 70 percent of the freshmen who arrive in August by 2016. Powers wrote that ideas like making orientation mandatory will be done right away. Others will require more discussion.
The money-saving component to the recommendations is timely, as state leaders with ties to Republican Governor Rick Perry have pushed recently for more accountability and quantifiable results  from UT-Austin and other public colleges. While the committee outlined which recommendations would require resources to implement, it did not calculate the cost of adopting the plan.
The Perry-appointed Board of Regents released data  last year on the teaching and research productivity of individual faculty members, and just last week created new policies for post-tenure reviews . The University of Texas and Texas A&M University systems have long been a bipartisan source of pride, and some college leaders have criticized the increased scrutiny in which some instructors have been compared to "Sherpas"  while others were dubbed "coasters."
Diehl said the recent accountability push from the regents played a part in the drive for timely graduation. While the college has been reluctant to embrace some of the regents' ideas, a campus newspaper editor said there's wide agreement that the factors that contribute to slow graduation times need remedied. “Part of the reason it’s been accepted without as much of a fight is it’s something that a lot of people on campus recognize as a real problem or at least something we can better at that,” said Matt Daley, a Daily Texan associate editor who will have spent five years at UT-Austin when he graduates.
But while Texas’s four-year rate remains far below where administrators would like it, the number has climbed about 20 percentage points since 1979. The university’s academic profile has grown in that time and the college has become more selective, now accepting less than half its applicants.
While Student Body President Natalie Butler agrees the university must do more to encourage on-time graduation, she uses her own case as a reason why such policies shouldn’t be black and white. Butler, who didn’t sit on the committee, said the report does a good job of making strong recommendations that will work “96 percent of the time” while leaving enough leeway for students to pursue opportunities that make sense for them.
A fifth-year senior, Butler is a triple major who could have graduated already but chose to stay at Texas to pursue an extra major and lead the student government. At a college with 36,000 undergraduates, Butler said, it’s important that policies be flexible enough to allow students to take an internship on Capitol Hill or spend a semester abroad.
“I don’t ever want us to be at a place where we ask students to not take advantage of opportunities because it may delay graduation,” she said.
Butler agrees the new emphasis on four-year graduation is important. While Texas’s two-and-a-half day freshman orientation is valuable -- and 98.5 percent of students already attend -- she doesn’t remember ever having been told that students were expected to finish in four years. Daley, the student newspaper editor, also doesn't remember being told he should finish in four years. Making on-time graduation goal an explicit part of orientation starting this summer could help Texas reach its graduation goal, Butler said.
“The university hasn’t put a lot of emphasis on the four-year plan,” she said. “The four-year plan is not for everyone, but it works for most people. I think we have a big challenge on our hands -- that’s not to say we can’t get there.”
Among the committee’s proposals:
• Develop an early warning system for students whose GPAs aren’t low enough for academic probation but are approaching that threshold.
• Offer summer school tuition at a flat rate, instead of charging by the credit hour.
• Increase the emphasis on academic expectations at freshman orientation, and require new students to attend.
• Discourage students from adding a second major if that would require them to take more than four years.
• Don’t allow students to apply twice to the same competitive program within the university if they’re rejected the first time.
• Appoint someone to identify “bottleneck” classes across the university, and give that person the resources to work with departments to create more sections.
• Create an easy-to-use online tool that helps students and advisers track academic progress.