For those who put a premium on graduation rates, Sam Houston State University probably fails to impress, with 30 percent of students getting their degree in four years, 54 percent graduating in six years and 58 percent graduating in a decade, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
But for the university — one of the state’s oldest — it’s a marked improvement from its position 10 years ago. The four-year rate is now about even with the state average and the sixth-highest at a public university in Texas. In 2002, the four-year rate was at 17 percent and the school was farther down the list of rankings for graduation rates at public university in Texas.
Sam Houston State administrators credit much of the improvement to the creation of the nationally acclaimed Student Advising & Mentoring — or “SAM” — Center, now in its 10th year.
“I’ve been in education now for 45 years, and I’ve seen students change through the years,” said Bill Fleming, the executive director of the SAM Center. “I really believe now that students need more nurturing by others than when I went to school.”
As higher-education leaders throughout the state grapple with lagging graduation rates, many believe that the key may lie in improved advising, helping students plan out and navigate the optimal path to a degree. But not all approaches to academic advising are created equal — and increasing attention is being paid to the centralized approach taken at Sam Houston State.
Located on the first floor of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences building on the 272-acre Huntsville campus, the inviting couch-filled SAM Center bustles with student activity even when the walkways around the multi-tiered gardens in the center of the tree-covered campus are dead quiet.
Getting help from advisers at the center is mandatory for new students and those on academic probation, though the center assists anyone who comes through the door on a first-come, first-served basis. And those who are close to graduation are required to get advising to ensure that everything is in order and that they can get their degrees with no surprises.
The mentoring side of the center goes beyond academics, such as connecting students with counseling services or organizing speakers’ series to bring in role models for students. Other initiatives include a first-alert program that tips the center off to students as they begin to struggle and monitored plans to regain good standing.
“A lot of it has to do with the whole caring aspect of it,” Fleming said. “Somebody is looking at you and following up with you.”
Sam Houston State President Dana Gibson said that is particularly important on a campus on which more than half of the students are the first in their family to go to college. “These students can’t go home and ask their parents, ‘How do I do this?’” she said.
The university, with 15,000 undergraduates — more than 45 percent of whom are minorities — strives to be a “huge benefit to the work force,” Gibson added. To fulfill that mission, she said, a strong support system is imperative so students graduate in a timely fashion with a degree they can put to use.
And students are grateful for the extra support that they get at the SAM Center, saying that it’s vital in navigating the often-confusing path toward a degree.
Maribel Salgado, a senior from New Caney majoring in accounting, feels confident that she has a good line on a job for after she graduates. She said she has been seeking advice at the SAM Center regularly for the last two years, and that it has made her college experience much smoother. “There’s a lot of things the advisers help you see when you’re doing your degree program. Things you might have missed on your own,” she said. “They make it so you can graduate.”
At many large public universities, advising is a task that professors are asked to take on in addition to research and teaching duties. Fleming said this approach ultimately cheats the students. “Advising takes quite a bit of time if you do it right,” he said.
State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, the chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, agreed. “It’s not fair to demand of professors to add to their teaching load the responsibility of advising when that was not the career path they chose and they do not have expertise,” she said.
Prompted in part by her own personal difficulties with academic advisers in the past, Zaffirini has pushed the state to take a more deliberate look at best practices in advising. “To me, advising has to be a passion for those professors. They have to really care about advising students,” she said.
Linda Sweeney was one of the original 12 faculty advisers picked by Fleming when the SAM Center was created in 2002, following a student election to approve a $50-per-semester advising fee that passed easily. Sweeney gets a stipend for her work in the center, which she performs in addition to her duties as an accounting professor.
“It’s a lot more complicated now,” she said of students pursuing degrees. “I understand that they can read the catalog, but there are so many more prerequisites and grade requirements that it’s not as easy as it used to be.”
Other institutions are looking for ways to improve the degree advising process. University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa said that the need to improve advising — he said there were an average of 450 students for every adviser throughout the system (and it is approaching 600 students per adviser at the University of Texas at Brownsville) — is why the system has partnered with MyEdu, a private software company based in Austin that allows students to map out their own degree plans.
Given the state’s budget crunch, lawmakers are encouraging institutions to improve their performance with existing state resources, which means any school looking to build an operation like the SAM Center must do so with alternative resources. Fleming said the SAM Center was not a hard sell t0 students — of course, average tuition and fees at the time were slightly more than $3,000 per year at Sam Houston State. Now, they are more than $7,300, of which the advising fee is a very small part.
Gibson fears that as tuition increases and state funding decreases, the steady rate of improvement in Sam Houston State’s graduation rates will slow as more students take on part-time jobs to pay for college, decreasing their course load and lengthening their time to degree completion. Depending on a student’s situation, advisers at the SAM Center may even encourage students to take fewer hours in a given semester.
That’s one reason why some, like state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, the chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, say that graduation rates — particularly those that measure the traditional four-year time frame — are “an imperfect measurement for campuses with more nontraditional students.”
It’s also why improved advising, while increasingly called upon as the Texas higher education pipeline struggles with students unprepared for college, is not a silver bullet for the state’s struggles to boost college completion.
“You should never be happy with the status quo,” Gibson said, indicating that she was continuing to seek out methods for improving student success. “You get that big jump and then after that you just have to keep tweaking it and improving it.”
This is the final installment of a four-part series on the completion crisis at public universities in Texas. Part One covers 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 Three discusses Texas Southern University’s attempts to rise from the bottom of the state rankings.