On Wednesday, addressing more than 1,000 incoming freshmen who descended on the University of Texas at Austin campus for orientation, UT President Bill Powers emphasized the benefits — financial and otherwise — of graduating in four years.
There is a lot riding on the incoming class. The university has launched an effort to increase its four-year graduation rate for undergraduate students to 70 percent by 2016. It currently has a graduation rate just above 50 percent.
The ambitious goal would put UT substantially ahead of other Texas public universities, the overwhelming majority of which currently have rates below 50 percent. But that's not how Powers pitched it to students.
"To them, the rates aren't what's important," he told reporters after delivering his remarks, which focused primarily on the benefits to students' pocketbooks of paying for no more than four years of college.
In addition to keeping personal costs low, Powers said that planning for a maximum stay of four years makes for a more valuable period on campus. "If you're going through a well-thought-out experience rather than just a hodge podge, it's a better educational experience," he said.
In June, a task force that had been appointed to study how UT's graduation rates could be improved released its conclusions in a 114-page report. One recommendation was a more rigorous freshman orientation that was mandatory for incoming students. While officials said some of the recommendations required further discussion, this was implemented immediately.
"When I started college, there wasn't a summer orientation like this," said Powers, who earned his undergraduate degree at the University of California, Berkeley. "We showed up, somebody greeted us for half an hour, gave us a catalog and off we went."
He said that achieving a jump of nearly 20 percentage points in UT's four-year graduation rates would require work on the part of both students and the university, which must make sure enough courses and advisers are available to allow students to move through the higher-education pipeline.
Beyond the extra time and money, Powers indicated that the university would not be punish or single out students who did not hit the four-year mark. Rather, he said, he fears that the standard length of time for students to spend as undergraduates has slid to around five years, and he hopes to foster an environment where four is the norm.
Powers conceded that it may seem a bit arbitrary to some. "Is there something magical about that? I don't know," he said of a four-year undergraduate career. But he said that American culture has certain expectations for what a bachelor's degree requires.
"It's a convention in a culture where it seems to have worked pretty well," he said.