OnRamps high school courses can improve UT’s graduation rates

Jennifer Ebbeler

Editor’s Note: This column is one in a series by associate classics professor Jennifer Ebbeler on the changing nature of higher education at UT-Austin and other institutions. Look for Prof. Ebbeler’s column in the Opinion section of this paper every other Wednesday.

At a select number of high schools and community colleges around Texas, venturesome students and their teachers are pioneering a bold initiative called OnRamps. Coordinated through the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Teaching and Learning and directed by former senior educational researcher at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Julie Schell, OnRamps courses offer high school students the opportunity to take dual credit UT-Austin courses with their own teachers and on their high school campus.

An OnRamps course differs from an AP or IB course in that it is designed by UT-Austin faculty, with guidance from learning specialists, and is meant to be equal to the difficulty level and content coverage of a UT campus-based course. Credit is received by completing the course with a passing grade rather than by passing an examination set by a third party. The goals of the initiative are two-fold: to help high school students meet some of their state-mandated core requirements before they arrive on campus and to acclimate high school students to the rigor and pace of college-level coursework in an effort to ease the transition between high school and college for freshmen. 

Among the more serious social and economic problems facing the state of Texas is low college completion rates. Only 25 percent of enrolled students graduate in four years and 34 percent after seven to nine years. While completion rates aren’t the only measure of college success, these numbers are shockingly low. The rates are higher for UT, where 52 percent of enrolled students graduate in four years, but increasing the four-year graduation rate to 70 percent is an important priority as the University moves forward. We know that there is a strong correlation between higher levels of initial transfer credit and faster graduation rates. 

Yet it is not just about checking off a box — after all, high school students have been doing that for generations by taking AP/IB courses or community college courses. The truly significant benefit of an OnRamps course is the access it provides to a challenging, well-designed course that helps high school students prepare for the kind — and depth — of learning they will be asked to do in college.

“All too often students report that the dual credit courses they completed in high school didn’t align well with the expectations at UT-Austin,” said Harrison Keller, vice-provost for Higher Education Policy and Research and director of the Center for Teaching and Learning. “By providing engaging, rigorous dual credit courses that are directly aligned with our expectations, working in close partnership with school districts, community colleges and other universities, we want to eliminate that expectations gap and help students transition seamlessly into subsequent courses.”

All OnRamps courses are designed and delivered as blended courses. That is, they utilize a mix of online and in-class learning activities. There is strong evidence that a blended model supports increased student learning, but it is not without its challenges — particularly when the instructors of the course were not the primary course designers. Megan Parry, the OnRamps partnership coordinator, reports that as the initiative continues to evolve and expand, opportunities for professional development for the high school teachers who are running the courses will be critical. Teachers will need specialized and likely extensive training to run a blended classroom, which can be a significant obstacle to implementation. It will be crucial for teachers to be provided with a strong network of support from the administration of their local school districts, from OnRamps staff, and from fellow OnRamps teachers around the state. It will also be important for the teachers and students to have opportunities to provide detailed feedback on what works and does not work in the pilot versions of the courses and to have the opportunity to work with the course designers to adapt future iterations to the specific needs of their students.

Ideally, an OnRamps course will balance the autonomy of the local high school instructor with the core content and learning activities designed by teams of UT faculty. It is an initiative that has the potential to dramatically change the often rocky transition between high school and college and, in so doing, to edge up four-year and six-year graduation rates around the state of Texas. Freshmen will continue to arrive with significant numbers of transfer credit, but now those credits will truly represent UT-level coursework and prepare students to succeed in more advanced courses on the UT campus.

Ebbeler is an associate classics professor from Claremont, Calif.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this column incorrectly stated that the OnRamps program is funded through the Center for Teaching and Learning. It is funded by the state legislature.