The Keys to Timely Graduation

By David Laude
This op/ed originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle on Dec. 27

When it comes to the idea of timely graduation, the higher education community is deeply divided.

The conflict cuts at the heart of what college is supposed to be. Is it a time of exploration, when young people may chart new paths even if it means a few false starts? Or is it a time of methodical preparation for adulthood and a career - a milestone where completion signals a student is ready to enter the work force or earn an advanced degree?

At The University of Texas at Austin, I am charged with improving enrollment management and raising our four-year-graduation rate to 70 percent by 2016. I am also a chemistry professor, responsible for a class of 500 students, mostly freshmen, who must learn introductory chemistry each semester.

In an era of resource scarcity in higher education, improving graduation rates makes economic sense. Higher education seats are in high demand. The price of extended undergraduate stints can be high for universities, parents and students - increased student loan debt, lost income from delayed entry to the work force and fewer seats for worthy candidates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and other fields we need to drive our economy.

But when I talk to my students one-on-one, efficiency and debt reduction are not uppermost on their minds. Instead it's about adding a second major to improve their prospects for grad school, or a certificate to help with landing a job. They are concerned about taking too heavy a courseload and balancing it with the rest of what college life is supposed to be, or worried the D they made on their first midterm is a sign they should switch majors.

For them, college is about exploration and the experience.

And so part of my job, in addition to making sure the right majors and courses are available and students get good advising, is to help students feel good about the choices they make. Making sure they are matched with the right majors before stepping on campus, by using online tools such as our Wayfinder and employing front-end college readiness assessments to make sure those first courses are a success. Ensuring they have a community of peers with similar interests to encourage social and academic support. Reimagining traditional large-format classes to improve student success, while maintaining rigor. All this while changing the culture so that four years to completion is the norm, rather than five or six.

As this past semester was winding down, I bumped into one of my former students. He's in his fourth year as a business major on the pre-med track and considering adding a second major in chemistry. Why? Because he has discovered he loves organic chemistry.

This was music to a chemistry professor's ears, but it would mean adding a fifth year. So I asked him to consider whether that fifth year would fundamentally change him the way a first year in med school would. If not, perhaps he should reconsider.

"So if I'm feeling too comfortable at UT, then I should leave?" he summarized.

Exactly. Growing up intellectually and emotionally is designed to be uncomfortable. That is the point, and if it is not uncomfortable, then it is time to move on.

Pursuit of knowledge is only a slice of what the college experience is meant to be. Learning to balance a rigorous course load, manage priorities and solve academic and social problems ensures that, at the end of four years of undergraduate work, students are prepared to tackle their next endeavor - employment, graduate school, internships, community development - in a much more sophisticated way.

The old cliché is true: Growing up is hard to do. And if it's not hard, then congratulations, you've made it to adulthood and it is time to tackle something else.

Read more messages from Laude
Decision Time: Becoming a Longhorn
New and Improved Work-Study
Taking the Job