E. Gordon Gee

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.”

As universities continue to aim to increase four-year graduation rates, some are recommending looking to UT as an example.

In an open letter to college and university leaders from the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment, E. Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University, said graduating on time is essential for the country’s success. 

“The number of Americans attending college is at a historic high, but far too many never make it to graduation ... Left unaddressed, it will hinder social mobility and impede the nation’s economic progress,” Gee’s letter said.

The letter details three main hindrances that, if remedied, seem to be the key to increasing graduation rates: changing campus culture, improving cost effectiveness and making better use of data. The letter cites UT as an example of successfully implementing the first two goals.

“The University of Texas at Austin is perhaps the best example of an institution that conducted a far-reaching study of how to overcome long-standing obstacles to improving retention and graduation rates,” the letter said.

In order to improve cost-effectiveness, the letter suggests narrowing student choice to encourage completion, among other possibilities.

“The University of Texas at Austin recommended eliminating simultaneous majors unless the student can demonstrate that having a simultaneous major will not delay degree completion,” the letter said.

The four-year graduation rate at UT was 51.4 percent in 2011, according to a report by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. UT President William Powers Jr. recently set a goal of a 70 percent four-year graduation rate by 2016.

According to the letter, a few ways that the final issue of making better use of data can be improved is by using information technology to communicate with students about progress to graduation and to identify at-risk students.

“Using testing data to identify high school students who need to improve their academic preparation is another promising retention strategy,” the letter said.

According to a press release, Gee will meet with Powers on Feb. 11 in Austin for a panel discussion regarding the recommendations in this letter.