Include students to improve degree plans

Samantha Katsounas

As UT’s freshmen express relief upon finishing their first few weeks of class, they remain blissfully unaware of a startling fact regarding their new home. Unbeknownst to most freshmen, half of their peers in the class of 2015 will not graduate in four years. Not only does this hinder the progress of students, it impedes the ability of the University to rise in national university rankings. In his State of the University Address last Wednesday, President William Powers Jr. forcefully declared his intention to raise the four-year graduation rate from 51 to 70 percent within five years.

Using powerful rhetoric, Powers effectively shifted negative attention away from the idea that faculty and professors are part of the problem, stressing that little can be accomplished quickly if UT is not “given room to focus” on solutions. While debate on the roles of research and instruction in Texas’ public universities persists, an emphasis on the quantitative efficiency of professors is counterproductive in the solution for higher graduation rates. The quantitative approach leads to significantly larger class sizes and less involvement of tenured faculty in undergraduate classrooms, which erases potential benefits for students and the reputation of the University. The quantitative approach also ignores students, who are the only part of the UT community that experiences first-hand the effects of diluted instruction.

Students who do not complete their degree within four years clearly lose economically by having to pay tuition for extra semesters in school. However, according to a recent report by Marc Musick, UT sociology professor and associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts, there are other “opportunity costs” associated with delayed graduation. Students experience economic costs for the time they could have spent employed full-time, psychological costs for blows to self-esteem and social costs for the lack of credentials to push their career forward, according to Musick’s report. Despite these problems that directly affect students, the average Longhorn has never been invited to submit suggestions for reforms that could lead to increased four-year graduation rates.

The UT community suffers from more than just grim-sounding graduation statistics. Powers emphasized in his speech the need to increase on-time graduation rates to allow “more students [to] enter the front door, thereby increasing access” for new students. To achieve his ambitious goal, Powers has suggested the “redesigning of courses and course pathways” in concordance with Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa’s “Framework for Advancing Excellence” introduced last month. Cigarroa’s plan for reform includes tuition policies that incentivize on-time graduation and improvements to student advising.

In a speech earlier this year, Powers characterized choosing a major, course selection and [UT’s] “own failure to provide enough available course sequences” as key reasons why students are unable to graduate on time. Short of an expensive hiring frenzy to lower faculty-to-student ratios, the idea of redesigning course pathways has been rightly lauded as a more economical and efficient way to increase UT’s graduation rate.

Despite having good intentions, the plan could portend trouble for students. Powers and other academics have repeatedly referenced the influential “Commission of 125” report from 2004 as the “marching orders” for the plan to increase on-time graduation. Many of their general suggestions have been brought to life in recent years — the School of Undergraduate Studies for undeclared students, the freshman signature course and the Freshman Research Initiative program — to mostly positive results. Although the idea of redesigning course plans in this objective is suitable, caution should be taken in implementing other ideas from the report.

A suggestion for limiting transfer credit is especially problematic. The commission, which did not include any students who were enrolled at the time, recommended that core requirements not be easily satisfied by Advanced Placement testing in order to prevent students from placing out of lower division courses. This ineffectual plan will only serve to postpone the graduation dates of students who are unsure of their major upon admission or those who pursue dual degrees and minors. If ambitious high school students are not able to transfer their credit, demand for AP classes that help prepare for success in college courses will diminish. Moreover, if UT refuses to accept AP credit or places a cap on credit, many high school students will find themselves applying elsewhere to save money and graduate on time, a net loss for the University.

With three-fourths of UT’s student population admitted automatically because of their rank in high school, improvements in the graduation rate should be possible. We have a highly intelligent student body that wants a well-rounded education and to quickly join the workforce. Include students in the discussion for degree plan improvements — they are uniquely able to provide solutions to the problems faculty and analysts often miss.

Katsounas is a business and government sophomore.