The university assembly line

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In recent months and in the context of decreased financial support from the state Legislature, UT has come under increasing pressure to optimize its operations. Special attention has been paid — by Gov. Rick Perry, Rick O’Donnell and others — to the perceived inefficiency of various parts of UT’s teaching and research missions.

One aspect of this which has received a fair amount of attention from commentators as well as University administrators has been UT’s four year graduation rate, which stood at 52.9% for the group of students entering in fall 2005. This compares favorably with the state average—49.3% for students across the state entering in during the same period, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

President William Powers Jr. has repeatedly called on colleges and departments to address UT’s low completion rate. Students taking longer than four years to graduate cost the University money, so the argument goes, and we should therefore encourage more students finish their programs in a timely manner. In his Framework for Advancing Excellence in Higher Education announced last Thursday, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa recommended that universities in the system “implement tuition policies to incentivize students to graduate in four years” beginning next fall.

Positive incentives are a good way to address this issue, but in implementing them, administrators should be careful not to create a prohibitively costly alternative to students who would not graduate on time.

Any incentives should recognize and account for the various factors that can cause a student to take longer than four years to graduate. If a student is double-majoring or pursuing two degrees, he or she will need to take more classes. Interdisciplinary education is becoming increasingly important in an age where, according to Duke University professor Cathy Davidson, almost 65 percent of students entering grade school will be employed in jobs that have not yet been invented. But individual undergraduate programs have been slow to recognize the value of learning from multiple traditions.

Additionally, if a student works, he or she may need to take fewer hours per semester. As tuition prices continue to rise, more students may need to pay their own way. And if a student entered the University with a large number of AP credits, he or she will no doubt be able to finish faster than a student coming from a high school that, for example, did not offer calculus. These types of students should not be effectively punished for taking longer than others. University-wide averages at a school as large as UT do not take these individual factors into account. But education is an individual experience.

Much of the criticism of various attempts to measure the efficiency of professors at UT and Texas A&M focused on the inherently qualitative nature of education. It is not something which can be easily reduced to data to code into spreadsheets and pie charts.

Four-year graduation rates can be easily quantified. They relate to data that can be easily measured — for example, the average credit hours per semester or the number of times a student changes his or her major — and are therefore a tempting target for efficiency analysis.

In citing these figures, which admittedly deserve serious attention, University administrators must be careful not to buy into the narrative created by the very politicians and commentators they seek to placate — namely, that the standard by which universities should be measured is the number of degrees they confer and the amount of money it takes to do so.

Unduly emphasizing graduation rates buys into the pervasive metaphor in modern higher education policy that constantly compares universities to businesses. The model is as follows: If X number of students enroll in the engineering school in 2012, then in 2016, UT will churn out Y number of engineers — or at least, Y number of people with a diploma and “educated” stamped on their foreheads — who will then contribute Z dollars to the state economy, therefore justifying the investment that taxpayers make in public higher education.

This predictable, mechanical style of operation would certainly please a factory’s shareholders. But students are not widgets, and universities of the first class are not factories.