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Billboard Takes Aim at UTSA Graduation Rates

On Tuesday, the Texas Association of Business rented a billboard to criticize a public higher education institution's graduation rate — and not for the first time.

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*Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

Drivers in Austin on Tuesday may have passed a billboard that said, in all caps, "ONLY 1 IN 4 AT UTSA GRADUATE IN 6 YEARS. IS THAT SHIP SHAPE?"

The message about the University of Texas at San Antonio came from the Texas Association of Business, the state chamber of commerce, which rented the billboard for the day.

"We used UTSA as just one example of an institution within the University of Texas System that is not performing at the highest level when it comes to students leaving there with a meaningful degree," association CEO Bill Hammond said in a statement. 

Though it highlights the University of Texas at San Antonio, the group put up the message in Austin because that is where the University of Texas System administrative offices are located, Hammond said. The "ship shape" question is a reference to the system's incoming chancellor, Admiral William H. McRaven.

"The University of Texas System realizes that graduation rates are not where they should be for a variety of reasons, particularly at institutions that serve a large population of part-time and/or first-generation college students," UT system spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said in an email. "Recognizing this as a critical issue, UT System leaders have made strong commitments to improving graduation rates and are dedicating resources and providing support programs to achieve this." 

"UTSA is committed to improving graduation rates and has implemented a number of initiatives to help students succeed," Joe Izbrand, the school's chief communications officer, said in a statement. He also noted that the numbers cited on the billboard leave a large number of students uncounted.

UTSA's six-year graduation rate is about 27 percent, according to federal data, which calculates graduation rates based on the number of full-time students who graduate from the institution in which they first enrolled. But according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which counts students who have transferred to another institution in the state as part of a school's graduation rate, the six-year rate for UTSA is 49 percent.

"The point is not the exact percentage," Hammond said. "The point is that it's not good."

According to the most recent Coordinating Board data, the UT institution with the highest six-year graduation rate is the flagship campus in Austin with about 83 percent. The lowest is the University of Texas of the Permian Basin with about 37 percent. The federal data is slightly lower for both: UT's rate is 80 percent, and UTPB's is 32 percent. 

It's not the first time the association has employed such a tactic to get the attention of the higher education community.

In 2011, the group posted billboards in Austin and Dallas highlighting the three-year graduation rates at the local community college districts. In Dallas, the billboard asked if an 8 percent graduation rate was fair to the students. In Austin, the billboard asked whether a 4 percent graduation rate represented a good use of taxpayer money.

Delivered via billboard, the message was not well-received by the community college leaders, who argued that the numbers did not provide a complete picture and that the association should be campaigning to increase the state's investment in community colleges, rather than attacking them for their graduation rates.

But in an interview on Tuesday, Hammond said the approach worked in 2011. The billboards are a part of the association's push for the state to implement what is known as "outcomes-based funding" for its public higher education institutions. Under such a model, a portion of the state's appropriations would be dependent on metrics such as graduations.

Since 2011, when the association first put community colleges' graduation rates on billboard, an outcomes-based funding model has been adopted for the state's community colleges. But universities have successfully pushed back against changes to the current enrollment-based funding model. 

In a statement, Hammond referred to the billboard as a "conversation starter" that will highlight this issue heading into the legislative session.

The UT System, for one, supported the THECB's latest proposals for outcomes-based funding, LaCoste-Caputo said.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at San Antonio, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas of the Permian Basin are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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