Sunday, November 13, 2005

Speeding up graduation from Texas public universities

The Chronicle recently ran an article about concerns by The University of Texas regents that graduation rates are too slow.
At five of the system's nine undergraduate campuses, less than 37 percent of full-time freshmen who started college in the fall of 1997 had received a bachelor's degree from the school within six years. The statewide six-year graduation rate is 52 percent, while the national rate is about 55 percent.
Board members were concerned with both the four- and six-year rates, saying people who take longer than four years to graduate leave less room on campus for new students. That means the universities either have to turn away applicants or construct new buildings at taxpayer expense.

Students who remain in college for a fifth or sixth year also have to spend more money while missing out on income they could be earning on the job, Huffines said.

Teresa Sullivan, executive vice chancellor for the UT System, said several uncontrollable factors contribute to low graduation rates. Some students, she said, have to work to support their spouses and children and can't take enough classes to graduate within six years. Others are delayed by illness or poor preparation for college course work.

But administrative problems get in the way too, she said, such as confusing or overly lengthy curriculums, poor retention and advising programs and restrictive policies concerning transfer credits.

Somebody needs to give these people a clue. Why don't they just ask the students why they take so long to graduate? I have two step-daughters at UT-Austin, and I can tell you from personal experience exactly what the problem is: not enough sections of courses kids need to graduate. UT lets the most senior kids register first, and then down the seniority rankings, until freshman register last. Many, many classes fill up all available sections fast, long before it gets down to even juniors sometimes, much less sophomores and freshman. So the kids are stuck biding their time, waiting until they have enough seniority to get into the classes they need. Combine that with long, sequential strings of prerequisites for many majors, and it's a recipe for six or more years to graduate. And God help you if, once you finally get into some substantive upper level classes, you decide you made the wrong choice and need to change majors. It's particularly frustrating for my youngest, who went in with dozens of AP credit hours, technically making her a sophomore after this semester, but she still registers as a freshman and can't get into the classes she wants and needs.

The administration needs to lean hard on the departments to offer enough sections to meet the demand for classes. Either that or revamp major course requirements to have fewer pre-reqs and more flexibility. Try this exercise: for each major, lay out a 4-year schedule of classes that leads to meeting the requirements and graduating. Then look at registration records and ask: can students at each of those seniority levels actually get into those classes for that year? I'm betting in many cases, the answer is "No." Fix that, and they'll go a long way towards fixing the graduation problem.


At 12:26 AM, November 14, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Telling departments to offer more sections is well and good, but they need funding to do so. Texas education, especially at the college level, is notoriously underfunded compared to just about every peer state we have save Florida.

UT is one of the best deals in college education now, but like any product in a capitalistic society, when the price is so low, you have to take away from SOMETHING. At UT, its fitting 48,000 students on one campus and trying to find a way to educate them all with an extremely low tuition.

Unfortunately, unless Texas decides to fund our universities at the same level as states such as California, Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina we will have to sacrifice our kids graduation times as universities are forced to make ends meet. Interestingly, states as conservative as Georgia and North Carolina have some of the best schools in the nation without many of the problems Texas runs into. Then again, they all have a state income tax too.

Of course, dont ask a Texan if hes willing to pay taxes to improve our educational system. He would much rather buy an SUV.

At 1:08 AM, November 14, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If this is any indication, money isn't the problem at UT.

At 8:26 AM, November 14, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ring Zero -

The reality at most institutions of higher education is that they don't like the idea of drawing upon their endowments to cover operating expenses and such. What we see from anon's comments is that even though UT has fantastic resources, most kids there find graduating within 4 years a real challenge. So it's a strange situation - money is not a problem, but in some ways it is.

Once we look past the UT and A&M system, we see state institutions that really do get squeezed financially. UH is a classic example.

At 8:39 AM, November 14, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory -

RE: "The administration needs to lean hard on the departments to offer enough sections to meet the demand for classes"

That takes money (and staff, which gets back to the money again). If an administration provides the resources for a department, adding additional sections is typically not a problem. In absence of those resources, then no amount of leaning by the administration is going to improve matters much.

At 9:44 AM, November 14, 2005, Blogger Mark said...

The problem isn't so much getting the pre-reqs and classes. My experience was that after your freshman year, its not that hard to get what you need. and you can petition to get into full classes if you need them to graduate, etc.
No the real problem is that this generation of students is reluctant to graduate. They don't want to because college life is far easier than working, and they know it. So they put of going into the real world as long as they can.

At 10:48 AM, November 14, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mark -

I'm around college students every day, and I have been off and on for the last 10 years, and if anything I would chartacterize the current generation of students to be more motivated - not less - than my generation, which was late 80s/early 90s.

At 11:00 AM, November 14, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Let me open with the caveat that I don't have university-insider knowledge on this topic - I'm just speculating. Money/resources may be an issue, but I also think there's a systemic problem with the way universities are structured. The depts set major reqs and then also decide who will teach how many sections. Most profs consider teaching a chore vs. research, so they try to minimize their sections and focus on topics they'd rather teach, whether or not that lines up with student demand or major reqs. Depts are in no way penalized if the system they end up creating takes kids 5, 6, or more years to graduate. Actually they benefit, because they can then complain they need more resources for more faculty, which also requires resources for more facilities. The administration is the only group charged with getting students through the system, and they need to be student advocates when it comes to pressuring depts.

At 1:06 PM, November 14, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a lot of pressure on departments to get students out in 4 years at most universities. Departments shouldn't be penalized though if students decide to double or triple major or take a year off to go to Europe.

Interestingly, I would like to see an economic analysis of tuition versus time-taken to graduate. I would imagine cheap schools like UT would have a much higher mean graduation rate than more expensive schools with the same average SAT score.

Frankly, I have never heard of private school students having trouble graduating in 4 years, which could be due to smaller class size. But paying an extra 30,000 to stay an extra year versus what UT charges is a much greater incentive to graduate on time.

At 1:12 PM, November 14, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory -

I think the only incentives to have students *not* graduate comes at the PhD level, and then that's only in certain instances. I really haven't seen any evidence that suggests departments want undergraduates to take more than 4 years to complete their degree requirements.

Some schools rely on graduate student instructors to share the teaching load for those entry-level classes, and that is in fact a great way to prepare graduate students as they get close to going on the academic job market. Also, it's less expensive than hiring another full-time faculty member (or members). Another approach is to use adjuncts, but unfortunately some schools have moved away from that practice.

There's a possibility - and I'm just guessing here - that some schools might shy away from using graduate student instructors and adjunct faculty instructors because it might negatively impact their rankings in the various magazines that folks like us purchase to compare schools. The rankings culture is not necessarily a good thing for higher education.

At 2:27 PM, November 14, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

RJ -

I don't think depts really want students to take longer than 4 years, it just happens because they make tough major reqs with limited section availability because profs prefer researching over teaching.

Agree on grad instructors, adjuncts, and the negative impacts of rankings.

At 4:37 PM, November 14, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

US News Rankings have nothing to do with this phenomenon related to tardy graduation at UT. In fact, it should have the opposite effect. Graduation rate counts towards a university's ranking, so this in and of itself is an incentive for departments to graduate students since this will raise rank and make it easier for them to recruit faculty. That and the fact it gives a chance for non-Ivy schools like Stanford, Duke, and MIT a chance to compete with the Ivies. While it is overemphasized, the rankings are not as bad as people make them out to be (unless your ego gets in the way). Regardless, rankings have nothing to do with this issue.

The problem is UT is so cheap that students stick around way too long. UT has the easiest AP policy I have ever seen in my life, with students regularly getting credit and GPA CREDIT from APs. No other school I know of does this. So UT is doing everything it can to graduate people, its just that students are taking way too much time to get out because they underload or take time off to do other things.

At 4:38 PM, November 14, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

US News rankings dont care who the teachers are... it is not a part of their formula.

So I dont think that is the cause.

At 5:04 PM, November 14, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I thought the rankings used "% of classes taught by PhD" as a criteria? If so, that discourages depts from having grad students teach, which could limit course availability.

At 5:18 PM, November 14, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nope, nothing to do with % full time faculty teaching:

And I know so many people who go/went to UT its crazy. They have no problems getting into classes to graduate (since seniors then juniors get priority), and APs count for so much, and community college credits transfer extremely easily.

The only reason UT students dont graduate is because they dont want to-- either because they want to get another major, go abroad, work, etc.

And UT's tuition makes this possible. If you want to increase the 4-year graduation rate and make UT's rank go up, ironically the best thing to do is raise tuition.

At 9:27 PM, November 14, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...


There are two categories that jump right out in the US News rankings that are relevant to this discussion:

1) % faculty who are full-time

2) student/faculty ratio

Item 1 creates a potential disincentive from a rankings perspective to use adjuncts and grad student instructors because neither are full-time.

Item 2 creates a disincentive from a rankings perspective to use grad student instructors because they are not officially faculty.

So I disagree with your conclusion that rankings have nothing to do with the issue.

With regards to UT, we're dealing with the rule of large numbers here... Of course you probably know people there who are in no rush to graduate. When you have a student population of over 55k, that's gonna happen. Frequently. And it's so cheap, why not take one's time? Nevertheless, I certainly knew of people who couldn't get the classes that they needed, and Tory does to. Nothing that I have heard has led me to believe that this is rare. In fact, quite the opposite. I was fortunate enough not to have to be in that situation, but that's what I expected when paying the big private school bucks. Frankly, without any real data, we're just making assertions based on small samples... but I don't buy the notion that UT students don't graduate on time solely because they don't want to.

At 10:16 PM, November 14, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you look at % faculty that are full-time, that would have no effect on grad students teaching classes (a very common phenomenon at public universities) since they are not faculty. Adjunct and professors-of-practice would lower that ratio. Instructors do not as far as I know. So that aspect has no effect on rank persay.

On the second count you are correct to some degree, however, many professors who "just do research" and don't teach would count in that formula. So if I was an administrator, I would just increase the number of research faculty, but have them work on research full-time to bring more grants to the school, and then have grad students teach courses.

Unfortunately, universities have figured this out, to the detriment of classes.

But as it stands the best way to make students graduate from UT in 4 years is to create a financial disincentive to stay extra years... ie raise tuition. Not such a good plan.

At 12:05 PM, November 15, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, if UT is anything like any other large public flagship, it's only people who try for popular majors who find themselves shut out of sections due to overenrollment.

At 12:09 PM, November 15, 2005, Blogger Adam said...


Complex processes need management and planning, even in education.

As a UT grad who dated a PhD candidate for about three years, I can testify that there is not a lot of planning, cycle reduction, back-to-front viewing, or similar practices that people use to manage evry kind of other process on the planet.

I think part of the reason is that we think we should have different values for education that encourage exploration and intellectual curiosity. Those are worthwhile goals, but they are poorly served by having students take classes that don't help them get wher they want to go because they don't help them in the majors they've chosen, or because they may have chosen the 'wrong' majors.

I would take even money bets that there is a direct correlation between four year graduation and time spent with course counselors. Furthermore, smaller, private college administrators and department chairs probably spend more time looking at the problem of late graduation.

Its not just a cost or space issue, the students are poorly served when the school sets up a system that forces them to spend more time (and money) without learning anything extra.

At 12:52 PM, November 15, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I would take even money bets that there is a direct correlation between four year graduation and time spent with course counselors."

That strikes me as a silly statement. Help me to understand why it's not...

"...they are poorly served by having students take classes that don't help them get wher they want to go because they don't help them in the majors they've chosen..."

Nice perspective - all classes outside of a major are worthless because... why?

At 3:23 AM, November 17, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This only anecdotal evidence, but I do know some who aren't/weren't in a hurry at UTexas because tuition is so cheap that there isn't nearly as much incentive to hurry. There's only opportunity cost otherwise, but that doesn't seem too bad when you're young and in college.


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