Plan to increase UT graduation rates realeased

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The incoming freshman class has not yet received their acceptance letters, but the University already has a mighty goal for them: to increase four-year graduation rates by about 20 percent.

The current graduation rate for undergraduates who earn a diploma in four years is 51 percent. President William Powers Jr. asked that a University task force make recommendations aimed at increasing that rate to 70 percent by 2016. Powers formed the task force, which includes eight faculty members, five undergraduate students and Liberal Arts Dean Randy Diehl as chair. Diehl said implementation of the recommendations will reduce financial burdens on students, families and taxpayers.

The University task force on undergraduate graduation rates released the 114-page report of recommendations on Wednesday. Report recommendations include making freshman orientation attendance mandatory, increasing personal and online advising and creating a temporary, three-to-five-year administrative position to focus solely on decreasing time for degrees.

Diehl said the University’s interactive degree audit is awkward and confusing. The report recommends changing the audit so planning degrees online can be easier.

However, the report does not tackle similar questions regarding the interactive website MyEdu. The UT System entered a $10 million partnership with the company to improve graduation rates through online advising. University administration has distanced itself somewhat from the tool, but the UT System plans for MyEdu to coincide with recommendations to change the degree audit.

The report suggests establishing an advising center in the Undergraduate Studies Department for incoming freshmen to cycle through, along with an adviser for their major if they have declared one. Freshmen in their second semester “who have demonstrated certainty about their major will be allowed to transition fully into their departments for academic advising,” according to the report.

Journalism junior Matthew Reese switched from aerospace engineering after two years in the major. He said he enjoys math and science, so he looked into engineering.

“It turned out to be a lot math and sitting at a desk. I knew I didn’t want to do that as a career,” Reese said.

Reese said journalism was his backup plan and journalism internships helped him make the choice to change majors. Reese said better advising would have eased his transition, his outlook on the University’s overall push to improve four-year graduation rates is negative.

“It’s better to get a degree in something you want to do instead of just getting in and getting out,” Reese said. “It just seems like they’re trying to get more students in because they’ll get more money.”

The report includes another recommendation to implement the state’s “slacker law,” in which tuition is increased for students who have not yet graduated, but exceed the number of hours it takes to earn a degree.

“We have to have a system that looks at individual cases,” Deihl said. “I would not recommend implementing the slacker law across the board.”

Diehl said taking on a second major outside of one’s primary college can slow down time, but he said the task force has no intention of barring students from adding a major.

The report also focuses on altering freshman orientation to better foster social connections that can extend into academic support when the school year begins.

In an email sent out Wednesday, Powers said some recommendations, like orientation changes, will be implemented immediately and others will take time to develop. “It will require the focused effort of both administrators and students to make it happen,” Powers said. “But I’m convinced the benefits will repay the effort many times over.”