Graduation without substantiation

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Editor’s note: The Daily Texan editor-in-chief is elected by students each year. The election ensures that UT students get the newspaper they want and an editorial board that represents their interests. This year, two candidates are vying for the position: Susannah Jacob and Shabab Siddiqui. To better inform our readership, we asked the candidates to write a column on a topic of their choice. Vote online Wednesday and Thursday at http://utexasvote.com.

Much has been said about graduation rates after the University released its highly anticipated and oddly celebrated report from the Task Force on Undergraduate Graduation Rates last week.

President William Powers Jr. assembled the task force in July and Randy Diehl, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, chaired it. Undergraduate students comprised four of the 14 members of the group.

The report’s two-pronged approach essentially advocates increasing various forms of support associated with improving time to graduation, such as advising, tracking and mentoring. Meanwhile the report advocates implementing various limitations associated with decreasing time to graduation, such as making it more difficult to change majors and enforcing the now-infamous “slacker rule,” which would charge out-of-state tuition to students who stay too long.

The report implicitly divides students into two groups. The first are students who are the victims of the state’s tradition to continue underserving the under-served. This group may include individuals who are low-income, minority, first-generation, married and many others who come to the University at a social, financial or academic disadvantage and are left to fend for themselves. Increasing resources to support these individuals can have a very positive net benefit to UT and its graduation rates.

However, the second group includes all other students, and the report’s unfortunate use of the word “slacker” plasters all eight-plus-semester students into popular culture like one of Taylor Swift’s ex-boyfriends. And while the rule itself only applies to a small subgroup of students, it implies a broad culture of campus-wide apathy and academic deficiency.

But a closer look presents plenty of examples of to adore among the more-than-four.

The report features a deftly calculated table that estimates the effects of students’ backgrounds and characteristics in determining their likelihood to graduate in four years. A student’s rank in his or her high school graduating class is a comparatively strong indicator of the student’s likelihood of graduating in four years.

Yet the data also shows that students who are in the top 2 to 5 percent of their high school graduating class have a lower chance of graduating in four years than students who are in the top 5 to 7 percent of their graduating class in three of the four models. While correlation and statistical significance need to be taken into account, this does open the possibility of the very top students at the University falling into the “slacker” class.

Additionally, at a town hall meeting hosted by the Undergraduate Business Council last semester, Tom Gilligan, dean of the McCombs School of Business, said the students with the lowest four-year graduation rates among undergraduates at the business school are business honors students, a group whose freshmen this year graduated in the top 1.8 percent of their high school classes and scored an average of 1472 on their SATs.

On an individual level, when was the last time a Student Government president graduated in four years? The representative elected to be the face of the University usually has to dedicate at least three semesters of lighter course schedules for their full-time endeavor. The same applies to athletes, whose consuming commitments to their scholarship-providers make graduating in four years difficult.

While there are many benefits of improving graduation rates for students, parents and the University alike, part of the push has to do with improving UT’s reputation and ranking.

This falls into the long history of big, public universities transforming themselves to mimic the higher education world view of the small, private universities that sit at the top.

But rather than focusing so much on the inputs and outputs, the University’s challenge lies in redefining the process in between in a way that maximizes its size and its public status.

Graduation rates are important, but a narrow focus on them is the work of a slacker.

Siddiqui is a finance and government junior.