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Graduation-Rates Campaign Heads to Dallas

A new billboard that will tower over Dallas' North Central Expressway on Monday offers a startling message on college graduation rates, an effort by a state business group to turn the spotlight on the the state's lagging higher ed outcomes.

The Texas Association of Business erected a billboard for the day in Austin highlighting the failure of colleges and universities to graduate students with degrees or certifications.

A new billboard that will tower over Dallas' North Central Expressway on Monday offers a startling message: "8% OF DCCCD STUDENTS GRADUATE IN 3 YRS. IS THAT FAIR TO THE STUDENTS? TX ASSN OF BUSINESS."

DCCCD is the Dallas County Community College District. The Texas Association of Business is an advocacy group for Texas business owners that has made lagging graduation rates at the state's higher education institutions a pet issue.

In October, the group put up a similar billboard in Austin for one day that took on Austin Community College, saying "4% OF ACC STUDENTS GRADUATE IN 3 YEARS. IS THAT A GOOD USE OF TAX $? TX ASSOCIATION OF BUSINESS.”

"The general reaction was people were appalled," said Bill Hammond, the president of the association. However, several said framing the question in terms of tax dollars left them unmoved — thus the more student-centered approach in this latest effort. "It's more altruistic," Hammond said.

Hammond's group, along with the Texas Business Leadership Council and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, have been encouraging the Legislature to adopt a higher ed funding system that incentivizes improving outcomes like graduation rates. So far, they have not been successful, though a bill passed in the most recent session mandated that outcomes-based funding proposals be presented in 2013.

"We want to raise the issue of completions in Texas," Hammond said. At stake, he said, is the quality of the state's workforce and, ultimately, its economic prosperity.

According to a report from Complete College America, a nonprofit focused solely on boosting national college completion rates, for every 100 students who enroll in a public college or university in Texas, only seven will have graduated from a two-year college within four years, and only 13 will have graduated from a four-year institution within eight years.

"We're looking at a massive shortage of educated workforce unless we increase the productivity of education in Texas," Hammond said. "Overall, two-thirds of the jobs of the future will require some post-secondary degree or certificate."

But his message has received some pushback.

In his "President's Podcast" this week, ACC President Richard Rhodes addressed the issue of graduation rates, noting that the figures don't provide a comprehensive picture because they only count first-time, full-time students. At ACC, only about 5.5 percent of the student body matched that description and were measured in the graduation rate.

"People really have to understand the metrics and the data behind the metrics," Rhodes said in his podcast. "There's a much larger story when we think about community college students and what their intent is and why they come here."

Hammond is unsympathetic to assertions that the activity on community college campuses can't be measured; he calls it "complete BS."

Hammond said the Texas Association of Business hopes that by raising awareness through this campaign, graduation rates could rise as much as 60 percent. He said his group hasn't decided whether to erect similar messages in other parts of the state. 

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