How much progress does enrollment data really show?

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On Monday the University released its preliminary Fall 2013 Enrollment Analysis. The report, which examines the most recent enrollment and retention numbers, shows mixed results: While four-year graduation rates actually decreased slightly from spring 2012 to spring 2013, from 52.2 percent to 52 percent, five-year and six-year graduation rates both inched upward, by 1.9 percent and 0.7 percent, respectively. Additionally, the one-year retention rate for the entering classes in fall 2011 and 2012 crept upward from 93.2 percent to 93.6 percent, its highest level ever.

In an article published on Wednesday, David Laude, UT’s senior vice provost of enrollment and graduation management, told the Texan that the University is taking steps to push students to graduate on time. 

According to Laude, the administration is re-emphasizing alternative pathways to academic credit, both at the high school and college levels, to speed up the graduation process. Even before future Longhorns first set foot on campus, the University is encouraging them to get a head-start on their studies through Advanced Placement courses and dual enrollment, which allows ambitious students to take college-level courses while still in high school. Here on the 40 Acres, meanwhile, the University is urging students to take summer and online classes to stay on track.  

The administration’s long-term goal, as originally envisioned, is to bump the four-year graduation rate up to 70 percent for the 2016-17 class that matriculated this fall. The University has offered up many reasons for stressing on-time graduation, among which are lower student loan debt and an earlier entrance into the workforce.

Indeed, the soaring cost of college will surely motivate students to finish their coursework as quickly as possible. Although the inflation-adjusted median wage in America has increased by 16 percent in the last three decades, that same time period has seen the cost of college jump 250 percent, according to the White House. That means more and more students are borrowing more and more money to finance their education.

Although the exact amount of outstanding student loan debt is unknown, even conservative estimates put the number at around $1 trillion. For purposes of comparison, the national debt stood at around $17 trillion as of Wednesday evening, according to USDebtClock.org. According to The Institute for College Access and Success Project on Student Debt, two-thirds of college students today are graduating with student loan debt, and the average borrower is walking away with $26,600 of it.  

While the University didn’t see across-the-board growth, administrators are optimistic that the 0.4 percentage-point improvement in the one-year retention rate will translate into “substantial increases” in the four-year graduation rate and hopefully propel UT toward its 2016 graduation target. They also point to the  academic qualifications of the Class of 2017, which Laude has described as “one of the best prepared classes we’ve ever had,” as reason for optimism.

We, too, are optimistic, although we can see why one might have doubts about the projected increase.

In an interview with the Daily Texan editorial board on Wednesday, Laude explained how such a small change could have such a profound impact.

 “It is incorrect to measure the impact of the improvement simply as an addition operation,” Laude said. “Rather it reflects trends that have multiplicative effects that converge the improved quality of the entering class, improvements in orientation and placement, improvements in freshman instruction, etc.  So yes, I would predict that the trend line for attrition will be consistent with substantial improvements in four year graduation rates.”

In other words, the effects of staying on after freshman year will reverberate across a Longhorn’s college career and spread to others around them.

However, we still have to wonder about the administration’s methodology. What Laude says sounds reasonable at first blush, but will it actually play out that way in practice? We hope the answer to that question is yes. Furthermore, if the data is taken as an improvement, why does it only apply to the retention rate and not to the more highly valued four-year graduation rate? These questions still beg clear answers.