In the farthest corner of West Texas, nestled between the Franklin Mountains and the U.S.-Mexico border and hundreds of miles from any other public university in the state, the University of Texas at El Paso and its fortress-like buildings occupy one of the state’s most exotic campus settings.
The perspective of its president, Diana Natalicio, is similarly distinct. She eschews commonly accepted higher-education measures like graduation rates — which show that just one out of 10 entering UTEP freshmen graduate within four years — and seeks to redefine what determines a university’s success. She said UTEP, which has more than 18,000 undergraduate students and accepts nearly 97 percent of its applicants, aims to demonstrate that a university "could actually achieve both access and excellence."
Critics say it is failing in its core responsibility of graduating students. According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, after six years, just 35 percent of UTEP students have graduated; only 46 percent get their degrees in a decade.
The highest four-year graduation rate at a public Texas university is the hardly boast-worthy 53 percent at the University of Texas at Austin. In a nod to the growing span of the typical college experience, the six-year graduation rate has become the standard in higher-education measures. In Texas, it is roughly 49 percent, which ranks 17th in the country, according to the coordinating board.
Natalicio acknowledges that the numbers are low, and says the university is working on improvements. But she questions whether they accurately reflect the success of an institution serving a majority-minority community made up mostly of students who historically might not have been able to pursue higher education.
“It’s regrettable that graduation rates have become such a handy weapon to use against institutions that serve low-income and first-generation students,” she said.
For El Pasoans like Athena Matyear, a senior studying organizational and corporate communications, there are few options beyond UTEP “It changed my life,” she said, adding that if there had been more stringent admissions requirements, “I wouldn’t have gotten in. My scores weren’t good enough. I probably never would have gone to school.”
Other players in the escalating debate over the effectiveness of Texas higher education place a high value on measurements like graduation rates. During a January speech in Austin, Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economist who has often criticized Texas academia, singled out UTEP.
“With such a high dropout rate, I ask, why doesn’t Texas simply close UT-El Paso?” he asked.
Natalicio said the graduation rate Vedder cited, as measured by the federal government, only calculates the cohort of first-time students who enter a university and move through it in a precise amount of time, giving no credit for transfers in or out or for part-time students. In fact, it only takes into account 30 percent of UTEP’s enrolled undergraduate students, she said.
“If you collect a lot of data and you look at it, you recognize that some metrics fit certain institutions better than others,” she said. “Graduation rate is much more about the demographics of your student population than it is anything about your efficiency or performance.”
The demographics of the El Paso campus are, more than many Texas colleges, a reflection of the region. Roughly 77 percent of the students are Hispanic, 9 percent are white and 3 percent are black. Eighty-four percent hail from El Paso County, followed by 7 percent from Mexico. About 46 percent are eligible for Pell Grants, the federal government’s need-based financial aid program.
The demographics reflect students who have not historically pursued higher education in large numbers, who have traditionally been loan-averse and more apt to work their way through college, making on-time graduation more difficult. At UTEP, the jump between six-year and 10-year graduation rates is much larger than at other state institutions, lending credence to the notion that these students take a more circuitous route to graduation.
Natalicio said the student body’s makeup demonstrates the extent to which the university has elevated the aspirations of the local community. “I’m much more proud of that statistic than I am worried about graduation rates per se,” she said.
The most sure-fire way to increase the graduation rate is to increase selectivity, something Natalicio indicated she has no intention of doing. The students are even more protective of UTEP’s commitment to accessibility, as it is one of eight public colleges in Texas vying to be the next top-tier research university.
The tier-one push has served as a rallying cry for many of the UTEP faithful, but for some, like Matyear, it causes some anxiety. “Doesn’t that mean it will be harder for students to get in?” she asked. “I feel like that will close off so many opportunities to students who come to UTEP.”
Administrators say they are not losing sight of their access mission, and their goal is to become the first tier-one university “with a 21st-century student demographic.”
Natalicio’s argument against the emphasis on graduation rates has won an influential convert in Woody Hunt, an El Paso-based businessman who has pushed the Legislature to alter state funding to reward universities’ ability to graduate students. He wants to see funding tied to the total number of graduations — not the rates.
“In a low-income population where you’ve got ins and outs, people coming and going, it really is not a very good measurement,” he said.
From 2003 to 2010, UTEP had a 73 percent increase in undergraduate degrees awarded, from 1,754 to 3,031. In that same timeframe, its six-year graduation rate only rose by 8 percent.
Hunt said the university plays a singular role in the region. “Because of our particular geography within the state, there’s no choice beyond relocating a far distance and financially being able to support yourself,” he said. “When you couple that with a relatively low-income student population, it essentially means there is no choice.”
Donna Ekal, UTEP’s associate provost for undergraduate studies, said the top reasons students leave without degrees are work and finances, family problems, transportation, and health and academic struggles.
Educators have to be deliberate in how they address students’ needs, she said. If they repeatedly miss class over work or family issues, “throwing another math tutor at them is going to be the Band-aid, but it won’t address the disease.”
One program her office spearheaded combines study skills and financial management training for freshmen to help bridge the gap between the first and second year of college, which is when many students get lost. Between 2009, when the program began, and 2010, there was a nearly 13 percent jump in retention of students who participate..
University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa wants all institutions in the system to raise four-year graduation rates, and indicated they will be held accountable if they fail. While he thinks such data points are important, he said they should be measured in a nuanced way that reflects the reality of an institution’s student population.
Calls to boost graduation rates at UTEP are hardly new. When he was in office, former state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, repeatedly pushed for reforms to improve college completion, and organized a student group to study the issue. It concluded that rates could rise to 50 percent with a few changes to remedial courses and degree planning.
Natalicio cautioned against making major changes geared solely toward driving up one number.
“When you identify something like graduation rates or some of these criteria, if it starts to drive your investments, you’re taking money away from something you know is more meaningful and putting it into something that maybe is more of a status symbol,” she said.
This is the second installment of a four-part series on the completion crisis at public universities in Texas. Part One looks at the lagging graduation rates across the state and whether they matter. Part Three discusses Texas Southern University’s attempts to rise from the bottom of the state rankings. And Part Four covers how Sam Houston State University credits its advising center for a rise in graduation rates.