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Texas Southern University Works to Lift Graduation Rate Up From Bottom

Texas Southern University has the state's lowest graduation rate, but TSU President John Rudley says that steps are being taken to put the university on the right track.

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With a mere 3 percent of Texas Southern University students graduating within four years — and less than a quarter earning their degree in a decade — John Rudley knows that people are asking “What’s wrong with this institution?” and “What are they going to do about it?”

Rudley, the TSU president charged with finding a path forward for the college with the state’s worst graduation rate, asks himself those same questions constantly.

“We’re in an industry that has benchmarks,” he said, “and that’s a benchmark I’m not going to support.”

Critics say the staggeringly low graduation rate at TSU — a historically black college in Houston’s urban Third Ward that currently receives more state financing per student than the University of Texas at Austin — is unacceptable. With predictions that more than 60 percent of the nation’s jobs will require a higher-education credential in 2020, the same critics say that such low-performing universities could create economic problems by not successfully preparing the state’s work force for the future.

Would-be students “should be looking at the community college and not be lured into going to a four-year institution that’s not going to be able to graduate them,” said Bill Hammond, the president of the Texas Association of Business, which has been pushing the Legislature to address the issue of college completions. “It’s unfair to the kids when they have little or no probability of graduating.”

But Glenn Lewis, the chairman of TSU’s board of regents, said that the university’s low numbers, among the nation’s worst, reflect a school willing to take chances on a high volume of students who are inadequately prepared — culturally, academically and economically — for college.

“I’m not sure that I agree that the graduation rate says what most people think it says,” he said. “But we do recognize that we’re going to be evaluated on that, and we’ve got to get that up.”

Rudley said that to appreciate how TSU’s rates could be so low, it is necessary to understand the university’s past as an urban institution “for students who didn’t have 1500 on their SATs.”

TSU, born out of segregation 85 years ago following a lawsuit over race-based discrimination at the University of Texas School of Law, has a student body that is roughly 83 percent black, 6 percent Hispanic and 3 percent white.

TSU’s reputation — and its enrollment — suffered a blow in 2006 following an administrative accounting scandal that led to the ouster and indictment of President Priscilla Slade (who later reached a financial settlement) and the removal of the entire board of regents. Throughout its struggles, and even when some questioned the university’s viability, TSU has had staunch protectors in the state Legislature.

“We have traditionally white universities — it’s called Texas A&M. We need traditionally black universities,” said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Democrat whose district includes TSU “That aspect of our culture is extremely important, because some things are unique to African-Americans.”

Rudley, who is in his fourth year as president, said TSU had historically been shortchanged, both by the state and by college leaders who failed to make the necessary strategic moves to grow the university.

“Why isn’t Texas Southern University, in the heart of Houston, Texas, the third- or fourth-largest city in the United States, why is it only 10,000 students?” he asked. “It should be 20,000 students now instead of being relegated to being a historically black college that just serves African-Americans.”

He said his administration is taking a more hands-on, student-centric approach that should improve academic achievement, which he said had not previously received sufficient attention. Despite what the graduation rates suggest, Rudley said the campus is in the midst of a “renaissance.”

It’s a far cry from six years ago, when campus grounds had been neglected and buildings sat in disrepair. Now, where there once there was only concrete, the center of campus is lined with grass and trees. And the university has gotten its financial house in order.

This self-improvement project, along with the administration’s desire to upgrade TSU’s reputation, is permeating the student body. Brianna Isaac, a freshman from Tyler studying education, said, “I want to be the one to bring those statistics up.”

 Isaac said she turned down several universities with higher graduation rates. “I knew what I was getting into,” she said.

The efforts to right the ship at TSU have not been cheap. Texas Southern University currently spends nearly as much per student as Texas A&M University, which has a four-year graduation rate of about 51 percent. Rudley said this is a result of the process of hiring almost an entirely new administrative staff.

One of Rudley’s first moves when he took over in 2008 —coming from the University of Houston System, where the downtown campus has an equally low four-year graduation rate — was to introduce admissions standards.

TSU had been one of the state’s last public open-enrollment universities. Now prospective students must have at least a 2.5 GPA and either a combined reading and math score of 820 on the SAT or a 17 on the ACT. Where previously anyone could enroll, now the school only accepts about three-quarters of its applicants, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

“Most of us had fought that over the years,” Coleman said of the admissions change. “We thought access should be free and open.”

Coleman ultimately came to view the switch as a positive. But he said that accountability measures like graduation rates should take into account how tuition costs have increased over time, and the effect that has on students’ ability to finish their degrees.

“People like to talk about slackers when the reason people don’t move forward and finish in four years probably has little to do with slacking and more to do with working,” he said.

Part of TSU’s student-centric push is a new academic village, financed with a $2.7 million grant, that houses 390 of TSU’s 1,100 freshmen. At what is otherwise a predominantly commuter campus, the students in the academic village get around-the-clock support from live-in TSU staff members with the explicit intention of graduating the entire group in four years.

To meet that goal, students in the academic village are pushed to take at least 15 credit hours each semester and are encouraged not to hold jobs. Rudley said graduation rates are unlikely to rise without applying pressure. “If you just let them do things on their own, they’ll start out with 15 hours, and drop down to 12 hours, then drop down to 9 hours,” he said.

James Smiley, a sophomore who has grown up in Houston, is working his way through TSU. He said the university’s graduation rates have no direct bearing on his personal success.

“When I look at the numbers, I just use that for self-motivation,” he said.

Rudley said he would like to see the university’s 12 percent six-year graduation rate rise to between 28 percent and 35 percent.

While hardly a top tier ambition, Rudley called it “decent and respectable and matching with our mission.”

That may not satisfy critics, he said, but “I want them to say, in the same breath, ‘They’re working on it.’”

This is the third 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 Two is about how the University of Texas at El Paso aims to redefine success. And Part Four covers how Sam Houston State University credits its advising center for a rise in graduation rates.

The Texas Association of Business is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune.

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