Don't lose the sheep

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Zachary Foust wants to teach high school history after he graduates from UT. From his outer-aisle seat in Hogg Auditorium, Zachary looked wide-eyed at the name-tagged, incoming-freshman masses all waiting for President William Powers Jr. to deliver a welcoming speech. Zachary was among the 1,200 who attended an orientation session last week, the first of six such events scheduled this summer for one of the largest incoming freshman classes in recent memory. The class of 2016 — to which Zachary belongs — could be as large as 8,500 students, roughly 1,000 students more than the university administrators initially predicted.

An unexpectedly high number of acceptances reversed historical trends and led to a bump in the size of this class. UT officials say the increase reflects a broadened recruiting effort, which proved more successful than they had expected. Although the tuition debate between the current UT administration and the Governor’s office remains heated, the price of a UT education is still a good deal for most families.

The uptick in class size will strain university resources and make increasing four-year graduation rates an uphill battle as more students struggle to find spots in the classes they need to graduate on time. This is problematic since one of Powers’ top priorities is to increase four-year graduation rates for Zachary’s cohorts to 70 percent, when current four-year graduation rates only hover around 50.

Calculating acceptance rates requires lots of guesswork by an admissions office already hamstrung by the top ten-percent rule, so the oversized class, while unexpected, does not constitute an “oops” by the administration. Nor, by all accounts, do the extra 1,000 freshman, betray a Board of Regents’ secret agenda to increase matriculation in order to gain more financial support from a state funding model that demands an increase in admissions in order to get more funds.

But, if the administration wants to improve four-year graduation rates while refuting the reputation that UT, with its packed introductory classes, is the sort of place where 18-year-olds come to get lost, it must either get serious about reducing class size, or accept greater responsibility in helping students navigate their journey through the university.

Fourth in his class of 250 students at Tivy High School in Kerrville, Texas, Zachary would seem to be exactly the sort of incoming student UT administrators targeted with increased recruitment efforts. He’s only been to Austin twice before, once on a school field trip to see the State Capitol and veterans’ graveyard, and then, more recently, on Longhorn Saturday when he made the decision to attend UT. Originally, he planned to go to Southwestern University, but a UT representative who visited his high school told him about UTeach, a program that gives students the opportunity to student-teach and acquire teaching certification.

In his remarks to Zachary and the others, Powers dropped not-so-subtle hints about the urgency that they graduate in 2016, not after. He told the students a story about a law school application essay he read 35 years ago as dean of UT Law School. The applicant had grown up in the city but spent a summer as a shepherd in Montana. “When she came home, her parents asked her what the most important thing she accomplished was,” Powers said. Her answer: “Not losing any of the sheep.”

“I hope you’ll take the attitude,” Powers instructed “that it is a job planning out your academic career ... and while we do everything we can to keep that cost [of higher education] as low as we can, there is no greater way to save than making an expeditious well-thought out way through the university.”

However, in his speech, Powers did not place the responsibility for four-year graduation entirely on the shoulders of UT’s 8,500, wide-eyed incoming freshman. He said the University is improving advising opportunities and expanding course offerings to help incoming students meet its four-year graduation rate objective.

Speaking to reporters afterwards, Powers addressed the bump in class size and the administration’s intention to increase four-year graduation rates. He answered an inquiry about his own five children’s success at graduating in four years (three did, one took five years, and one’s still in college — so “about 70 percent,” Powers calculated).

“We fully recognize that there are things that happen during four years. People change their minds, they want to pursue something else. It is not our philosophy that there is only one way through this university. But for most students, [the four-year route] is a cost savings for taxpayers and families.”

Facing pressure from students and politicians to make UT more affordable, university administrators must walk a fine line between making UT accessible to more students and not compromising the quality of education it provides. Adding a thousand additional students to campus when current students already struggle to find space in required classes threatens UT’s academic reputation and makes the recent emphasis on four-year graduation appear half-hearted, especially when it has not been made entirely clear how increasing four-year graduation rates or class size is in the best interest of the students.

Zachary and his classmates did not choose to be part of an oversized class. Nor did they decide to enter college at a time of strained resources, when the priorities of both the legislature and the university seem to undermine the university’s previously-stated mission of becoming one of the world’s top public research universities.

We recognize the university administrators did not single-handedly create our overcrowded and underfunded campus. But as Powers and other administrators negotiate the maze of more students, less money and a legislature and governor fixated on bottom-line results, they will need to try hard to do as they instruct the students and “not lose the sheep.”

— The Daily Texan Editorial Board