UT should rethink focus on four year graduation rates

Adam Humphrey

As of 2011, only 58 percent of students graduated from UT-Austin in four years. Seventy-seven percent of the class of 2010 graduated in five years, and 80 percent of the 2009 class graduated within six years.
In 2011 UT set its sights on raising the university-wide four-year graduation rate to 70 percent by 2017. Graduating in four years does have its benefits, but it is just one metric of student success which the University seems to overemphasize. There are many valid reasons that can cause students to need that extra semester or year, some of which are difficult to avoid.
Some students need the extra time due to difficulty with registration. The tense class registration process often leaves students wondering how they will get into the classes they need. UT has improved its registration process by assigning slots based on degree completion. Similar changes will be key to improving graduation rates down the road.

Others need more time because it took a while for them to figure out what they actually wanted as their major. An extra year can allow students to complete a second or even third major, a certificate, or even just allow them to figure out what they’re doing with their life.

College is marketed as a four-year experience, but the education landscape is continuously evolving and that benchmark isn’t as applicable as it once was. Nationally, about 56 percent of college students earn a degree within six years, according to a study conducted by National Student Clearinghouse. While UT’s rates are markedly better than that average, it shows that four years may be too few for many students.

Graduating in four years does have its benefits. Students who graduate “on time” typically have reduced student debt, and doing so helps keep a lower student population, which can lead to smaller class sizes.

In its quest to improve four-year graduation rates UT implemented a number of programs, one of which being the Interactive Degree Audit. The degree audit is a valuable tool that keeps students informed with their degree progression. However, these initiatives should aim to help students learn all that they need to while on the 40 Acres rather than rushing them to the finish line.

There are many other metrics that the University can use to measure its own success, first-year student retention for example. UT has improved in this area over the past five years from 92 percent retention in 2010 to 95.5 percent in 2014 (a record for the school). That state shows that students are successfully navigating the pitfalls of their first year in school, which can be daunting.

Statistics like that are better suited to showcase the school’s successes than four year graduation rates. The university needs to focus on providing the best education possible for its students, not push them out the door. The students who can graduate in four years will do so, and those who take longer will still be well prepared to face the world once they walk across the stage, diploma in hand.

Humphrey is a journalism senior from Round Rock. Follow him on Twitter @Humphrinator.