DECEMBER 9, 2013


A. Four-Year Graduation Rate Initiatives.

Senior Vice Provost David Laude (enrollment and graduation management, professor, chemistry) gave a broad overview of initiatives to improve UT Austin’s four-year graduation rate, which is currently at about 52 percent. He began with three recommendations from the task force chaired by College of Liberal Arts Dean Randy L. Diehl: 1) improve orientation, 2) improve advising, and 3) hire a champion for four-year graduation rates. For the past eighteen months, Vice Provost Laude has been serving as the champion for four-year graduation rates. He said that his “view of four-year graduation rates is couched less in the notion that we’re supposed to be graduating students with a 70 percent four-year graduation rate, and more with the perspective of student success.” In his opinion, what mattered most when a student graduates is that they had a successful academic, intellectual, and personal experience as an undergraduate.

Vice Provost Laude showed an Orientation video, which impressed upon the new students coming to UT Austin that graduating in four years makes sense and is doable. Dr. Laude said first, it was important to start by finding the right kind of students. He said the Top 10 Percent Rule requires that 75 percent of our students automatically qualify, while the other 25 percent are admitted from a very competitive pool of applicants. He said that he and Senior Vice Provost Dan Slesnick have been working with a team to develop a new way to evaluate a student’s potential for success, specifically in the context of graduating in four years. He said that along with the traditional parameters for defining success such as high SAT scores, dual credit or AP credit courses, other factors can also be considered in the decision. He said one thing being done is to use discretionary financial aid to go after the students who have been identified as the most likely to be successful in graduating in four years. The other thing was to identify the students who are likely to be challenged with respect to graduating in four years and supplement their educational experience to help them be successful. Vice Provost Laude displayed a slide that compared the predicted four-year graduation rate for the 2012 incoming class with that of the 2013 class, which showed fewer students with a lower likelihood of graduating in four years being admitted in 2013.

To illustrate how complicated the correlation between SAT scores and four-year graduation rates could be, the next slide provided data for students by college. Surprisingly, the data showed students with relatively higher SAT scores enrolled in engineering and natural sciences were less likely to graduate in four-years. Vice Provost Laude said the reasons for this may be that the degrees are more complicated, the courses more difficult, and/or many of these students really don’t know whether or not this is the kind of major they want to pursue. On the other hand, he pointed out that some colleges such as communications have already achieved its four-year mark of 70 percent. He said the data helped to identify the students who needed help to improve their ability to graduate in four years.

Vice Provost Laude went on to talk about improvements in orientation. He said that over the last couple of years, Professor Marc Musick (senior associate dean of student affairs, liberal arts) overhauled orientation. This past year, 99 percent of the incoming students attended and “got a much more academically focused sort of experience.” Dr. Laude said that orientation also provided an identity for incoming students; he said it was important that students see themselves as being part of, for example, the class of 2017, and added that each orientation class would have a logo.

To help students succeed, Dr. Laude said that substantial science, technology, engineering, and mathematics readiness courses had been implemented. As an example, he cited the summer Bridge Program where 200 students who were least likely to graduate in four years were identified and invited to participate. These students were given $6000 scholarships to show up in the summer to take a math and writing course and were incentivized by receiving $1000 if they passed both. “The argument here was that, these students would have been at home in the summer working, so why not have them come here and do the work of doing well in their coursework to be successful?”

Another program implemented to help students graduate in four years is the “Major Switch” program. Students, particularly in the STEM field, who find that they have made a mistake in their choice of major and are struggling to pass or are failing courses in their field of study are identified, counseled to find out what their goals are, where their interests lie, and given the option of being routed into non-majors math and science courses and to move into a new field of study.

In addition, students who have less than a 40 percent likelihood of graduating in four years are required to be part of a success program. Dr. Laude pointed out that there are a variety of really great success programs across campus that provide students with mentoring, small classroom experiences, and supplemental instruction that help them to perform better. He said that there are currently 1200 freshmen enrolled in a success program. He added that this year, with the help of undergraduate studies and support of people working in the First-Year Interest Groups (FIG) program, the idea was expanded so that all incoming students were able to have the small community experience, “ that’s 7200 incoming students, putting them into twenty student cohorts, means 360 connections, 360 different small cohort experiences.”

Vice Provost Laude said that he is now beginning to turn his attention to what can be done to help our sophomores, juniors, and seniors. He said he is working with Student Financial Services to provide incentive-based programs where students receive money because of their accomplishments. For example, the University Leadership Network supports 500 incoming freshmen with need. Over their four years at UT Austin, these students receive $5000 each year, and they receive leadership program training, internships, mentoring, and participate in community service. To receive the money, these students must stay on track to graduate in four years, and they have to continue to develop as students within the program. Another incentive program is the $1500 Enrichment Scholarships that provide presidential achievement scholars the opportunity to do experiential learning, participate in study abroad, and/or internships; and for freshmen students in the success programs who stay on track to graduate in four years, there are the Academic Excellence Scholarships. Dr. Laude said “the money is provided as a consequence of the behaviors that they exhibit towards graduating in four years,” and he stressed that this money was “over and above what the students might have received from financial aid otherwise, and it’s money that we can use to incent their behavior.”

Vice Provost Laude said that one of the important functions of his office was to serve in a support role to make sure the lines of communication are established between the student and the colleges. He said every year, three to four hundred students should have graduated but didn’t. He questioned why, what happened? He felt that if students were aware of and encouraged to use the resources available to them to help them successfully graduate, excuses people make for not graduating might be eliminated. One such resource available to students to help them to timely graduation is an evolving tool in the registrar’s office that allows students to see how they are doing with respect to four-year graduation. Dr. Laude said this tool could be an enormous benefit to advisors and students alike.

In closing, Dr. Laude showed a slide illustrating how complicated our degrees have become and pointed out that this “sophistication can oftentimes be a stranglehold on a student’s ability to graduate.” He said he is encouraging colleges and departments to look at simplifying degree programs while still ensuring “that students will be able to get the quality education they need, but not necessarily have to jump through quite as many hoops.” Vice Provost Laude then opened the floor to questions.

Sonia T. Seeman (associate professor, music) asked how the initiative for encouraging four-year gradation by offering more summer courses would work since funding for summer courses is decreasing, tuition is increasing, and fewer students are enrolling in summer courses. She also asked if the system could be made to support students who need an additional year to graduate because they are pursuing double majors and are making “very powerful contributions to society,” or because they are first-generation students “from disenfranchised minority communities that have not had access to training.”

Dr. Laude addressed the second question first by saying “we’re only trying to do it for 70 percent, so the other 30 percent can take more time if they would like.” He said that we have some remarkable students who are capable of finding “ingenious ways to weave these sorts of ideas together” and no one is trying to stop that. Having said that, he noted that how time is spent earning an undergraduate degree at UT Austin would evolve as more and more students arrive with substantial amounts of credit already earned.Regarding summer courses, Dr. Laude agreed that it made no sense to incentivize students to take financial aid in their fifth year adding to their student loan debt. He said that he is working with Thomas G. Melecki (director, Student Financial Services) to find more creative ways to provide financial aid to students who want and need to enroll in summer courses.

Dr. McClelland remarked that Texas A&M University offered a “back-end” financial incentive to students if they completed their degrees in four years as compared to the “front-end” approach of offering monetary incentives at the beginning. She wondered if UT Austin had considered A&M‘s approach. Vice Provost Laude explained that he felt the “carrot” was being offered in a more “nuanced approach” putting emphasis on “the quality of the educational experience along the way.” He cited the University Leadership Network as an example of the “evaluate as you go” approach where the students are given $500 each and every month as long as they stay on track to graduate in four years.

Professor Brian Evans (electrical and computer engineering) brought up that nearly 20 percent of the brightest students are enrolled in one of several integrated programs on campus where one may earn both a bachelor and a master’s degree at the end of five years. He noted that none of these students would be counted as having finished in four years.

Dr. Laude responded saying this was one of the challenges. He referenced several examples where students take five years to graduate such as the architecture, pharmacy programs, and the combined MS programs, all of which count against the four year graduation rate as currently calculated. He also reminded the Council that students may gather credit from multiple institutions—starting out in one only to finish in another—but only one institution gets the credit for the student’s graduation and that “exploration of this with the coordinating board and others is going to be important.” Dr. Laude added, “Higher education is changing pretty substantially in a variety of ways. Things like the combined degree that you just talked about, the opportunity for students to earn credit more fluidly through high school, through online sorts of initiatives, means that the traditional notion of a four-year graduation rate is going to start to dissolve away.”

Professor Anthony Petrosino (curriculum and instruction) asked Vice Provost Laude to discuss the computational models used to make predictions of four-year graduation rates and voiced his concern that if fees are being used, there may be a high correlation with income and education level, which might have “intended or unintended consequences of affecting the general student body.” Dr. Laude stated he would prefer not to go into the specifics of the model, but acknowledged, “that affluence buys that student lots of advantages with respect to ultimately being successful.” He questioned whether a University should go after the best of the best who have been able to demonstrate that they are able to graduate in four years, or should it provide support to students coming from underserved backgrounds to help them succeed? He said that he felt the University had done a great job supporting students admitted under the Top 10 Percent Rule and that excellent resources and support are available to this student population through success programs such as TIP, Gateway, and Discovery Scholars. He summed it up by saying “if it works, then that kind of student who was predicted to graduate with less than a 40 percent likelihood will now be above that bar, and there will be no such thing as that kind of student. All of them will be graduating up here.”

Professor Hans Hofmann (integrative biology) asked if there was any chance of doing away with or modifying the Top 10 Percent Rule. He said that other state public universities encourage struggling freshmen to move from the flagship university “to a lesser campus and vice versa.” Vice Provost Laude responded saying “these things are out of our control,” and we must “deal the hand that’s been given us.” However, he added that the caliber of students coming to UT Austin now as compared to twenty years ago is much better. “It’s just remarkable, we keep raising the expectation bar for these students and they are coming from all walks of life, they’re stepping up.” He said some students will struggle and that the University has a responsibility to all students, regardless of their background.

Professor Linda Reichl (physics) perceived a “huge contradiction” between what the administration is doing and the planned initiatives being discussed. She asked Dr. Laude to comment on the fact that resources to teach summer courses are being cut and that there will be even fewer courses taught next summer. Dr. Laude stated, “an appropriate tension exists between the student side of things and the resource side of things. And, it’s a good thing to have that tension because that’s how you build efficiencies.” If it can be demonstrated that students taking summer courses improve four-year graduation rates, he felt the provost would work with the colleges to make sure the resources were available for summer courses. He suggested that it is not so much a contradiction as a realization that we must get enrollment management under control by helping students find the right field of study and by putting resources in place to help them graduate, particularly in the STEM areas. He encouraged colleges to ask the provost’s office for additional resources if they find that they do not have enough to graduate students in four years. He reminded members that the largest class in the University’s history had just been admitted and the provost allocated “substantial amounts of one-time money to make sure that the introductory courses were taught, to make sure that the students would be taken care of.”

Professor Evans brought up the fact that in the College of Engineering, teaching assistant budgets had been cut year after year for eleven years, and raised the point that freshmen students would be around for four years and that funding would be needed to support them beyond their first year. He said engineering had not received the additional funding or resources needed. Dr. Laude concurred saying “The challenges in terms of making the first year a good one will pale compared to the challenges of what we need to do to find the resources to provide for the students finding their courses so they can graduate. This is something that has to be an absolute priority for the University.”

Chair Hart thanked Vice Provost Laude and he received a round of applause from the Faculty Council.1

1 See Appendix A for the complete PowerPoint (PPT) presentation.

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