The punitive approach to improving graduation rates

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UT students received an email from President William Powers Jr. on Wednesday afternoon announcing the culminating report of the Undergraduate Graduation Task Force. The report, authored by Liberal Arts Dean Randy Diehl, outlines dozens of recommendations aimed at reaching a 70 percent four-year graduation rate by 2016.

Many of the task force’s recommendations are commendable and would undoubtedly create positive changes in students’ lives. Online advising, improvements to the interactive degree audit system and identification of “bottleneck” courses that impede registration are among various policy alterations that would drastically ameliorate common student frustrations. In particular, enhancing the first-year experience with improvements to advising and orientation would help create an atmosphere of freshman success.

But despite its positive recommendations, the report dwells negatively on students who, for whatever reason, take longer than four years to graduate. The report offers a disquieting lack of insight into why students do not graduate on time and prescribes negative reinforcement for those who deviate from the path.

It depicts those who take longer than four years to graduate as students who have “become too attached to the University” or who have “become too afraid to enter the job market.” This bizarre characterization of the fifth-year student as a happy-go-lucky deadbeat is emphasized in the recommendation to enforce the so-called “slacker” rule that would impose out-of-state tuition on students who stay at UT beyond four years.

That an official report would even characterize students who don’t fit the four-year model as “slackers” demonstrates an appalling lack of consideration for the myriad reasons students need extra time before graduating. Internships, double majors, study abroad and, increasingly, an inability to register for the sheer volume of required core classes are all legitimate reasons of hard-working students to postpone graduation. And as tuition steadily rises, some students will be forced to take part-time jobs and decrease their course load to compensate. Imposing additional costs on students who need more than the traditional four years seems counterproductive.

Ultimately, the punishment structures for students who do not graduate in four years comprise almost half the pages of the actual report, overshadowing its numerous positive recommendations. The University has an obligation to ensure its students graduate on time. Likewise, the University has the responsibility of ensuring its own policies don’t inadvertently hold students behind. However, many students stay extra semesters of their own volition, and the punishment structures will restrict their ambition.

This raises questions as to how these punitive measures could even help students. In his email, Powers gave the explanation: rankings. He said that if UT “want[s] to become the best public university in America, [it] must target” four-year graduation rates.

Graduation rates are one of the “widely accepted indicators of excellence” that controls college rankings, including the highly influential US News & World Report list. Rising in the rankings with only minimal costs would please more than just Powers and administrators. The UT System Board of Regents has demanded greater emphasis on efficiency, putting pressure on administrators to hustle as many graduates across the stage as possible for as little money as possible, creating a virtual assembly line of hapless, helpless students.

And, thus, what is administrators’ first priority will become the students’ as well; get your degree in four years or pay the consequences. According to the report, “students are … not made aware of the importance of graduating in four years.” But what exactly is that importance to students? Is it to help the student make career-based, beneficial decisions for himself or herself? Or is it to pad the statistics of bureaucratic administrators, lost in dreams of the University as a degree factory?

Though not all the recommendations will be enacted, the rhetoric in the report is cause for concern. Unfortunately, in creating its recommendations, Diehl and the Undergraduate Task Force lost sight of the very group it was tasked with helping — the students.