Who’s scared of graduation rates?

Last month Dr. David Laude, current interim dean of the College of Natural Sciences, was appointed “Graduation Rate Champion.” When he begins his new job in July, Laude will be charged with seeing that at least 70 percent of the incoming freshman class graduates in four years, a goal the administration has given outsized importance since the publication of a February report that made specific recommendations on how to graduate more students in less time. The superhero image Laude’s “Champion” title brings to mind is not out of place given the good versus evil narratives that have played out during recent crises in higher education in Texas.

The list of villains is long and includes the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which dropped jaws when it proposed to split research and teaching, a Governor whose preoccupations with gaining political capital comes at the expense of thoughtful discussion of a public university’s purpose, and members of the Board of Regents who have consistently failed to win the trust of both students and alumni.

On the other side of the media-hyped higher education drama are those depicted as victims: students beset by rising costs, faculty members laid off or denied incentives due to budget cuts, and a university administration hamstrung by state politics that contradict the University’s own stated goals. Budget free falls, “breakthrough solutions” and $10,000 undergraduate degrees have all been serious cause for alarm over the past two years. With hardly a single exception, none of those episodes’ conclusions moved the University closer to its goal of being the number one public research institution in the country.

The crises continue unabated. Given the amount of attention and press coverage the issue has lately received, it appears that UT’s weak four-year graduation rate may be the greatest existential threat faced by Texas’ flagship university. Or maybe it’s just the most recent, flavor-of-the-month crisis in Texas higher education.

While some of the crises in the past two years have been truly critical and unavoidable situations over which the University had minimal control – particularly a challenging financial climate – the majority have been manufactured political debates that jeopardized students’ educations in order to advance a narrow agenda.

College students are taught not to expect that anything we hear is an absolute truth. After having heard so many conflicting pronouncements over the course of the past several years, it’s hard for students to truly believe that graduating in four years is really as important as the administration is making it out to be. Most likely, the importance of increasing our four-year graduation rate will be eclipsed by a bigger, even more newsworthy problem before the incoming freshman class makes it to senior year.

Though it remains unclear why, out of all the other challenges facing the University, four-year graduation rates warrant the creation of a special, new administrative position, the fact that one has been created is a hopeful signal that the graduation rate crisis may actually help move the University forward. Portions of the “Final Report of the Task Force on Undergraduate Graduation Rates” are frustrating. The “slacker rule” would allow the University to charge nonresident tuition to in-state students who do not achieve a degree in a certain number of hours. But the report, which is responsible for Dr. Laude’s new job, illuminates successfully some of the very real challenges that the University has struggled with for years.

So far, the only visible steps taken to address the four-year graduation rate have been changes to summer orientation, blatant messages in speeches, and promotional material distributed to incoming freshman – clearly the low-hanging fruit among the recommendations made in the report. Because the graduation rate issue touches on so many other challenges, it may well require the superhuman qualities implied by Laude’s “Graduation Champion” title.

Though the graduation rate issue may be the least exciting episode, and not as menacing as an ideology-driven think tank or a free-falling budget, it may, in the end, leave the greatest mark on the University. It will be up to everyone, students included, to make sure that this story has the happy ending needed after so many other unproductive conclusions.

—The Daily Texan Editorial Board