Nearly two-thirds of students who entered the University of Texas at Austin as freshmen in 2013 graduated on time, reflecting significant improvement for the state's flagship campus amid a national push to get more students through college in four years.
Data released Wednesday show that UT-Austin's four-year graduation rate rose from 52 percent in 2013 to 66 percent this year. The growth spanned racial groups and family income levels, the university said. Students whose finances made them eligible for Pell Grants made especially large gains, narrowing historic gaps in degree attainment.
The increases were significant because while the traditional path to a bachelor's degree is four years, most students around the country take longer. That extra time can add to their financial expense and their risk of dropping out.
The latest available national data show that 40 percent of those who started as first-time, full-time freshmen in 2009 finished at their original school by 2013. The four-year graduation rate was lower for public colleges: 35 percent.
The prolonging of undergraduate studies is so common that higher education leaders often use six years instead of four as the benchmark for measuring graduation rates. But that comes with a cost. "Time is the enemy of college completion," said Tom Sugar, president of Complete College America, an Indiana nonprofit that works with states to expand the share of the population with college degrees. "The longer it takes, the more life gets in the way, and the more expensive college becomes."
UT-Austin, with more than 40,000 undergraduates, is one of the largest state flagship universities in the nation. Roughly half of its students are Hispanic, Asian, black or multiracial. Nearly one-quarter qualify for Pell Grants. The estimated cost for tuition, fees, housing, food, books and other expenses for an in-state student from Texas is about $25,000 a year, if the student does not receive financial aid. That works out to roughly $100,000 for a bachelor's degree, assuming four years of study.
But until recently, nearly half of UT-Austin's incoming freshmen were on a trajectory to take longer and, ultimately, pay more. So the university decided about five years ago to try to speed things up.
First, the university set an expectation for all students, starting at freshman orientation, that they must stay on track to graduate on time. Eight semesters and out. Too often in the past, UT-Austin students seemed content with a slower pace, university President Gregory L. Fenves said. He said a common attitude was: "Don't take a full load. You'll get better grades." Now, there is more urgency.
Second, UT-Austin looked to eliminate bottlenecks that students encounter when required courses fill up. It created a "graduation help desk" hotline. "Students call in and say, 'I really need this class for graduation, but there are no seats. How can you help me?' " UT-Austin Provost Maurie McInnis said.
Third, the school mined data to identify the profile of students at risk of falling off track, and it gave them more social and academic support. One program, called the University Leadership Network, provides hundreds of students with mentors, help finding internships and other training focused on careers and academics. The goal, McInnis said, is for them "to learn how to navigate a big, complex place."
For many students nationwide, financial needs dictate the pace of education. Often, they must hold a part-time job, live with parents and take out loans to pay college bills. McInnis acknowledged that sometimes money is an issue for UT-Austin students from poor families because financial aid does not necessarily cover the full cost of attendance.
But the results released Wednesday show that UT-Austin is making strides with that group. Fifty-nine percent of Pell-eligible students who entered UT-Austin as freshmen in 2013 graduated on time this year, up from 40 percent four years ago. During that time, the gap in on-time graduate rates between Pell and non-Pell students was cut in half, to eight percentage points. The trend was similar for students whose parents did not graduate from college.
Among major public flagships, federal data show the University of Virginia has the highest four-year graduation rate: 88 percent for freshmen who entered in 2010. Others with high rates include the universities of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (84 percent), Michigan at Ann Arbor (77 percent) and California at Berkeley (76 percent). The rate for the University of Maryland at College Park is 69 percent.
Fenves said his goal is an on-time graduation rate of 70 percent.
Moving students through more quickly has an added benefit, Fenves said: It frees up as many as 1,000 additional seats a year for a freshman class that now totals about 8,400. "We have become a more efficient university," Fenves said. "We have increased access to the university at essentially the same cost."
Students appreciate efficiency, too. Norman Nguyen, 21, a biochemistry major, plans to graduate in December after 3½ years. He came to UT-Austin with credits through Advanced Placement classes in high school and has not dawdled. "Sometimes, I think maybe I should stay an extra semester to enjoy the full four-year experience," Nguyen said. But then he thinks about the money he'd have to pay for spring semester. "Better for me to save the extra $5,000-plus," he said.