Diana Natalicio

Fixed-rate tuition has been implemented at UT System institutions with varying success, UT System officials told Texas lawmakers Wednesday.

The Texas House Higher Education Committee considered a bill, filed by committee chairman Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, that would require universities to offer students a fixed-rate tuition plan as one option among other payment plans. The UT System Board of Regents voted on Feb. 14 to direct all system institutions to offer a four year fixed-rate tuition plan to incoming freshmen beginning fall 2014. 

Currently, a student’s tuition at UT is subject to change year to year. Various lawmakers and administrators — including Gov. Rick Perry — trumpeted fixing tuition as a way of controlling costs for students and incentivizing them to graduate in four years. But, four-year fixed tuition also gives universities less flexibility when dealing with budgetary changes.

Speaking to the committee, UT-El Paso President Diana Natalicio said the university’s optional guaranteed tuition program has not gained significant traction since its adoption in 2006.

“Some of our freshmen, we thought, would be interested in this and, particularly, we thought some parents would be interested in it,” Natalicio said. “What we discovered was that the response was lukewarm, at best.”

Natalicio said many students at UT-El Paso are considered “at-risk,” meaning that they have a low income and work part-time jobs, which may prevent them from making long-term financial plans in regard to their educational career and deter them from taking part in the program. 

UT-Dallas President David Daniel said the University implemented its guaranteed tuition program to act as one component of an effort to increase four-year graduation rates. Daniel said graduation rates at UT-Dallas increased from 32 percent in 2005 to 51 percent this year.

“I readily confess that I’m not sure how important the four-year tuition plan truly was in that, but my sense is that it has been a very important component in sending the message to everyone that this is what we expect,” Daniel said.

UT-Dallas and UT-El Paso are the only universities in the system that offer fixed-rate tuition over four years. UT-Dallas has the highest tuition among public universities in the state. 

Branch said he does not believe implementing the plan would act as a “silver bullet” to high college costs, but said it would help students and their families plan financially for their college careers among other goals.

“This is designed to be a tool in the toolbox to improve certainty, to improve affordability and hopefully to motivate completion early,” Branch said.

E. Gordon Gee, The National Commission on Higher Education Attainment Chair, discussed ways college completion could be improved at the AT&T Conference Center Monday afternoon.

Photo Credit: Charlie Pearce | Daily Texan Staff

The UT System Board of Regents, President William Powers Jr. and President Barack Obama have all issued calls to raise graduation rates, and in the search for solutions, the University is turning to the ultimate experts: actual college educators.

UT hosted a panel Monday to discuss “An Open Letter to College and University Leaders: Completion Must Be Our Priority,” the report released last month by the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment. The report states that “our goal was to look at this issue from the viewpoint of college and university leaders.” 

Panel participants included E. Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University and chairman of the commission; Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education; UT-El Paso President Diana Natalicio; and George Martin, president of St. Edward’s University. 

The report, released in January, offered a range of suggestions under three broader categories: changing campus culture to boost student success, improving cost-effectiveness and quality and making better use of data to boost success. UT has already undertaken some of the goals laid out in the report, including appointing David Laude as senior vice provost of enrollment and graduation management. 

Gee said appointing such an officer was a vital step in shifting the focus exclusively from boosting enrollment rates. 

“We have vast institutions called admissions offices, but we don’t have any offices focused on completion,” Gee said. 

Natalicio emphasized the impact a cultural shift can have on completion rates. She also mentioned her preference for the term “completion rate” rather than “graduation rate” because typically, graduation rate calculations do not include transfer students or part-time students. 

“We’ve been able to change the culture of a community that always saw itself as marginalized and working class,” Natalicio said.

Natalicio attributed a large part of the cultural shift to the work UT-El Paso has done with local K-12 schools.

“We all know that talent crosses gender and ethnic and socioeconomic boundaries, and we were squandering a tremendous amount of talent in the El Paso community,” Natalicio said. “El Paso colleges didn’t reflect the demographic makeup of the community. So we first worked for K-12 to raise aspirations and prepare students for success in higher education.”

Even as the panel discussed their proposed solutions, several members emphasized that universities need to adopt the recommendations on a case-by-case basis. 

“Our commission is interesting because we don’t tell people prescriptively what to do — we just tell people to get moving,” Gee said. “There are multiple ways to salvation.”

Broad also emphasized the complicated nature of the college completion issue.

“One size doesn’t fit all is such an understatement,” Broad said. “The great strength of the United States’ educational system is its diversity.”

The UT System measures efficiency by calculating the number of students who complete a degree exclusively at specific institutions, but this approach does not account for transfer students.

State pressure is on public universities to improve efficiency by increasing the number of students who receive degrees in four years or less, said UT-El Paso president Diana Natalicio. She said an alternative to using graduation rates as a metric is tracking students’ progress through different institutions to determine the number of students who complete a degree.

Natalicio said last week that 70 percent of the students who graduate from UTEP do not count in graduation rates because they did not attend the university from the beginning of their higher education experience.

“So much of what is happening right now in the name of productivity and efficiency comes from a misunderstanding of what’s happening on the ground,” Natalicio said.

In 2006, 11 percent of UTEP students graduated in four years, according to a UT System document. Natalicio said some UTEP students transfer from the university to UT Austin or universities in New Mexico and California. Based on graduation rates transfer students would not factor into the efficiency figure for the UT System institution in which they are enrolled.

“What we see is a population of students who have a different goal, to use the enrollment at UTEP as a stepping stone,” Natalicio said.

Natalicio said students who transfer into or out of UTEP are left out of this figure and basing efficiency measurements on graduation rates is an attempt to find fault in the university.

“I have to focus on degree completion because I can see that by doing what we’re doing we increase the number of success stories in El Paso,” Natalicio said.

She said community colleges give students the opportunity to earn college credit and spend less money, but UTEP is penalized for efficiency because these students are not counted in graduation rates.

Austin Community College president Richard Rhodes said last week that community college plays an important role in higher education. He said that ACC and UT-Austin work together closely to help students earn a degree.

“I think we’re seeing close collaboration to make sure we have those pathways and transfer pathways for students,” Rhodes said.

As of this year, UT-Arlington advisors are available at Tarrant County College campuses, a local community college, said Kristin Sullivan, assistant vice president for media relations at UT-Arlington. She said this improves students’ transfer experience into the university and will hopefully lead to faster degree completions.

“I think the stated goal from all ranks of government is in seeing more Texans earn a college degree,” Sullivan said.

In 2006, 18 percent of UT-Arlington students graduated in four years. She said the measurement of UT-Arlington’s efficiency is deceiving because graduation rates don’t include the students who transfer into the university.

Sullivan said UT-Arlington successfully incorporates different paths for students to complete a degree, but there are issues when efficiency is not measured to reflect these paths.

“I think that universities have changed,” Sullivan said.

“There are more options.”

At last weekend’s Texas Tribune Festival, a panel of higher education leaders were asked if the creation of more tier-one research universities was simply a mechanism for institutions to boast their reputations.

The Legislature created the tier-one research fund in 2009 to incentivize emerging research institutions to pursue top-tier status. While left somewhat vague, tier-one status is generally defined by a combination of quantitative and qualitative benchmarks including number of Ph.D.s awarded, size of endowment, commitment to graduate education and quality of libraries.

At the panel, University of Houston Chancellor and President Renu Khator and UT-El Paso President Diana Natalicio represented two of the seven emerging institutions vying for the funds. While denying that chasing the temptress of tier-one was simply a matter of reputation, both went on to speak about reputation anyway.

Khator listed all of the educational achievements UH received after being designated by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching as a top-tier research institution. Natalicio said no matter how many first-generation or low-income students UTEP graduates, those students still need to compete with other degree-holders and that tier-one status adds value to degrees.

The battle for research prestige underlies the defining power of perception in higher education and the contortionist efforts universities put forth to create that perception.

For one, research prestige is the new way public universities can survive. Of the top 25 public universities, only the College of William and Mary, University of Connecticut and Clemson University are not members of the Association of American Universities, which is considered by many to be the top conglomeration of public and private research institutions in the country.

Whether research trickles down to students — or even comes at the expense of students — is not questioned. Last year, the pursuit of tier-one status at Texas Tech resulted in the resignation of the university’s long-time honors college dean, Gary Bell, who questioned the costs of tier-one and told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, “Research is being so emphasized that teaching is being eclipsed.”

Athletics have come to play a part in the public university perception as well. Of the top 25 public schools, only the College of William and Mary and the four smaller University of California schools do not play in a major athletic conference. Athletics is seen as a way of increasing name recognition for schools competing as a national university.

It’s the reason why Khator sent an e-mail to President William Powers Jr. earlier in the year with a gentle reminder about UH’s athletic and academic standings compared to other Big 12 institutions, according to the Houston Chronicle. It is also why UT-San Antonio launched a football program this year, according to The Texas Tribune.

Over the years, our system of valuing degrees comes closer and closer to how we value stocks. New tools attempt to quantify and churn every quantifiable and churnable nugget available. The countless benefits of data are overshadowed and mistrusted because of their use for external judgment rather than internal improvement. Four out of the state's six university system chancellors are former politicians who were brought in for their ability to sell their institutions.

Perception lies at what bothered UT administrators the most over the last year. With an already established brand within the state, UT’s battle is not for recognition. But a carefully constructed image meant to catapult the University toward the top of the nation’s best public universities fell apart due to pressures from within.

It was not simply questions surrounding efficiency, graduation rates, faculty productivity and academic research in their own rights but rather that the questions morphed from an academic conversation into a nasty battle in front of the public’s eyes. The issues pitted the state’s flagship against its own governing body and illustrated an atmosphere of anti-intellectualism and instability to the entire country.

Mom always said to not care about what others think. But in higher education, that’s all that seems to matter.

— Shabab Siddiqui for the editorial board.