Four isn’t necessarily a magic number

Fall graduation lacks the pomp and circumstance occasioned by spring commencement, but for students graduating in December, the event is no less monumental. With or without fireworks, graduates will leave the familiarity of campus to confront the challenges and opportunities waiting for them beyond it. That they’re doing so in December rather than May might not make much of a difference for students, but it does make a difference for the University’s much-hyped four-year graduation rate. However, the four-year designation itself is somewhat arbitrary.

The administration’s goal is to have 70 percent of students graduate within four years of their enrollment at UT. Currently, around 70 percent of students graduate within five years, but four-year rates hover around 50 percent. To graduate more students more quickly, the Task Force on Undergraduate Graduation Rates, which was established in 2011 by UT President William Powers, Jr., suggested in its Feb. 15, 2012 report that it may be most effective to focus on students who miss graduating within four years by only one semester — many of whom may be walking across the stage this Saturday. According to the report, “For UT Austin to hit a graduation rate of 70 percent in four years, it would need to lower the time-to-degree [by] a single semester for about 800 students and two semesters for another 400. From that perspective, the task of achieving a 70 percent four-year graduation rate is much less daunting.”

The most recent data cited in the report, which focuses on students who entered college in fall 2006, shows that 50.6 percent of students graduated within four years. A semester later, more than 60 percent had graduated, thanks to the 750 or so who participated in fall commencement. According to the report’s logic, if those 750 students could have graduated a semester earlier, the University would be 10 percent closer to reaching its graduation rate goal.

This change would save students the $5,000 or so they spent on their extra semester and could potentially make available classroom seats for more incoming students. But the report fails to acknowledge that the same argument could be made for increasing 3½-year graduation rates. With increasing opportunities for high school students to earn transferable college credit prior to enrolling at a university, three year or 3½-year college careers are a viable option for many students. If the University enhances summer classes, as the report recommends, this option could become even more accessible to students looking to save time and money on their undergraduate education.

The Task Force’s report also neglects to explain why four years represent the perfect amount of time to spend in college. While in the past it may have taken four years to fit in all the coursework required for degree completion, changes in higher education that allow students to transfer credit from community colleges and online classes — changes the University is helping catalyze, thanks to its recent investment in EdX — are challenging the idea that there is a “correct” number of years in which to graduate.

In an editorial published in the Texan on June 10, President Powers was quoted saying, “We fully recognize that there are things that happen during four years. People change their minds, they want to pursue something else. It is not our philosophy that there is only one way through this university.” Our conclusion: Students graduating this weekend, whether they are doing so early or late, will still be receiving the same degrees as their friends who graduated this past May or will walk the stage next spring — give or take several thousand dollars and a few months. Ultimately, the choice is theirs.

Printed on Friday, December 6, 2012 as: Four isn't necessarily a magic number