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UT-Austin Unveils Plan to Boost Four-Year Graduation Rates

UPDATED: UT-Austin President Bill Powers says some of the new recommendations for boosting the university's four-year graduation to 70 percent will be implemented immediately, while others require further review.

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Updated, 5:30 p.m.: UT-Austin President Bill Powers issued a campus-wide email this afternoon acknowledging his receipt of the task force’s recommendations to boost the school's four-year graduation rate to 70 percent by 2016.

“Some of these, such as mandatory freshman orientation, will be implemented immediately,” he wrote. “Others will need additional input from faculty and staff.”

Early reviews of the report from various sides of higher education reform issue have been positive.

Thomas Lindsay, the director of the higher education center at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that has previously called for major higher education reforms, said he was optimistic.

“I think the measures that the task force identified should help to increase graduation rates,” he said, particularly noting a recommendation to identify “bottleneck” courses where a lack of seats prevents students from being able to enroll in classes that are key to their advancement.

“It’s certainly ambitious,” Lindsay said of the 70 percent target.

The Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a group that formed largely in response to the TPPF’s reform efforts, issued a statement praising the “thorough, deliberate and inclusive manner in which these recommendations were developed.”

“We applaud the proactive efforts of President Powers and Dean Diehl to increase efficiency, reduce costs and better prepare the next generation to meet the demands of the 21st century economy,” they said in the statement, which posited that the report could become a model for other institutions to replicate.

Key lawmakers also expressed support. Senate Higher Education Chairwoman Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said, "I think it's very promising. What I especially like is that it's not top down — it's the result of true collaboration."

House Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, said of the ambitious goal, "I think it's doable, particularly if the commitment is strong." He added that he appreciated the "intellectual honesty" of administrators who acknowledged that they could do better.

Original story:

Administrators at the University of Texas at Austin are hoping that students entering as freshmen this fall will accomplish something that has eluded their predecessors: a 70 percent four-year graduation rate.

According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the current four-year rate at UT is approximately 53 percent, but administrators today released a 114-page report (available on the left and at a new site launched by the university) detailing how they hope to make a nearly 20-point improvement by 2016.

UT College of Liberal Arts Dean Randy Diehl led the graduation-rate task force that produced the report. UT president Bill Powers created the 14-member group in June 2011 as higher education reformers ratcheted up scrutiny of the university’s operations.

The efforts are also in keeping with directives from UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, which he also issued last summer amid the roiling controversy, calling for system institutions to become leaders in four-year graduation rates.

If it can achieve its ambitious 70-percent goal for its four-year rates, the campus would be the state leader by a wide margin (UT's six-year and 10-year graduation rates are currently second in the state behind to Texas A&M University). Even that state-leading level, though, is still less than some comparable institutions around the country.

Diehl indicated that the issue has also become a focus as the price of a university degree has increased, putting a bigger burden on students. “Really, it comes down to the cost of education to students and their families and to the taxpayers,” he said.

“Timely graduation benefits every constituent in the educational chain, from parents and students to professors and administrators,” Powers said in a statement. He will review the report in the coming days.

When he sits down with the document, Powers will find 60 recommendations for improving graduation rates, some of which will have to be implemented quickly to serve the newest incoming class.

Going forward, the task force recommends a more rigorous orientation for all incoming freshmen. They also call for more effective intervention programs to identify and help students in academic jeopardy.

Another recommendation is that the university develop an online tool for students and advisers to monitor progress toward a degree. In a conference call with reporters, Diehl indicated that this recommendation might be achieved through a partnership the system recently struck with MyEdu, a private company that provides online degree planning services.

Further recommendations include making it more difficult to change majors or add a second major that will lengthen time to degree, creating flat-rate summer tuition to encourage students to take more courses, and enforcing a state rule that increases tuition for students who have not graduated even though they’ve acquired enough credits.

Diehl said he would not want what is sometimes referred to as the “slacker rule" to be enforced unilaterally across the board, but rather on an individual basis.

“Advisers will play a key role here,” he said.

And they will have to start playing that role very quickly. “Some of the recommendations will have a longer time of implementation inevitably,” Diehl said, “but the big ones, the ones that we think will be most effective, will have to implemented very, very quickly. … This incoming cohort will be the test of whether we’ve succeeded in 2016.”

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