Brian McCall

A Texas Tribune Festival panel of educators, including President William Powers, Jr., discuss college completion rates in Texas on Saturday.

Photo Credit: Dan Resler | Daily Texan Staff

During a panel for The Texas Tribune Festival on Saturday, President William Powers Jr. said the University is making progress toward its goal of increasing the four-year graduation rate to 70 percent by 2016.

In recent years, four-year graduation rates have been at more than 50 percent. Powers said students taking longer to graduate from the University become a resource issue.

"If somebody stays longer, there’s not room for other people to come in," Powers said. “We have students who are taking 145 credit hours. That’s using our resources. That’s using their resources.”

When students switch majors, certain courses they have previously taken no longer count in their new degree plan, Powers said, making it more difficult for them to graduate in four years.

"Degree plans are too complicated,” Powers said. “They’re too specified and narrowed. We’ve got to have a lot more flexibility in that so students can navigate that.”

Panelist Brian McCall, chancellor of the Texas State University System, discussed how it is more important that students actually graduate, regardless of how long it may take them.

McCall said it is a 1960s and 1970s notion that students can attend college from the ages 18-21 while their parents pay for their education. He said this is not the case anymore.

“Today, where the average age of the student is in the mid-twenties, and, in our case in the Texas State University System, the eight institutions in our system, 73 percent of the students work, and that is almost full-time, and that is year-round,” McCall said. “If they graduate in five years, six years, we celebrate it.”

State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, said demographers report about 60 percent of jobs in the future are going to require some form of higher education or certificate, making it increasingly important to receive a college degree, even if it may take longer.

“We’re not nearly at that level,” said Branch, who is chairman of the House Higher Education Committee.

About 34 percent of the current workforce in Texas requires credentials, according to Branch.

Branch said although he believes there is not a college-completion crisis in Texas, it is becoming increasingly important for students to graduate within four years because of limited public funds.

“To me when you look at the cost of having someone stay six, seven years, as opposed to getting out early – the cost to that family, that person, the cost of debt, the cost to taxpayers, and that scholarship could have gone to someone else – to me, that’s one aspect of a crisis that could be seen,” Branch said.

(From left to right) Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, Chairman Gene Powell, and General Council to the Board Francie Frederick listen to the Board of Regents decisions at their meeting this past Thursday.

Photo Credit: Jorge Corona | Daily Texan Staff

In late August of 2011, both Brian McCall, chancellor of the Texas State University System, and Francisco Cigarroa, chancellor of the University of Texas System, laid out new visions for their systems.

Though McCall’s “Picking Up the Pace” plan came first, Cigarroa’s “Framework for Advancing Excellence” garnered the most attention. He has been invited to the White House to discuss it — twice. Cigarroa’s is also more comprehensive and specific in its goals, but both lay out similar thematic plans, such as implementing strategies to reduce students’ time to degree completion, improve graduation rates and increase philanthropic giving to their universities.

In the past week, both chancellors had occasion to review their progress with their respective boards of regents.

Generally, both leaders gave rosy reviews to the progress in their systems. For example, McCall noted that collaboration across his system is on the rise, and Cigarroa observed that the UT System had strengthened and clarified its post-tenure review. Institutions in both systems have implemented $10,000 degree programs, as Gov. Rick Perry called for in early 2011.

But there is still room for improvement. In his new “Setting the Pace” report, while discussing graduation rates, McCall notes, “We still need to better understand why those who leave our institutions without earning degrees do so.”

A framework update put out by the UT System points out that much progress remains on the goals to expand health education and opportunities in South Texas, though Cigarroa recently announced the system’s intention to graduate its first medical school class in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in 2018.

The UT System framework grew out of months of turmoil sparked by disagreements over how the regents should go about reforming higher education. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Austin, was the source of some of the most controversial proposals to the state’s higher education policies.

The TPPF endorsed the framework when it debuted, and stood by that endorsement as its anniversary approached. But Thomas Lindsay, the director of the TPPF’s Center for Higher Education, cautioned against losing sight of improving how much students actually learn in college as the framework is implemented.

“We cannot speak credibly of ‘advancing excellence’ in public higher education without taking first into account whether and how much students increase their knowledge as a result of investing four years in college,” he said in a statement. “While increased graduation rates, online learning advances, sponsored research, increased advising and the like are important goals, to focus on these rather than the central goal of student learning serves little purpose.”

But at Thursday’s UT System regents meeting, the framework was clearly a source of pride. “From what I understand, the chancellor’s framework is quickly becoming a national model,” said Gene Powell, the chairman of the board of regents.

“It is a work in progress focused on continual improvement,” Cigarroa said in a statement. “Some initiatives have been completed; for others, we have created the infrastructures that will yield substantive results over time.”

Lindsay did not specifically comment on McCall’s plan for the Texas State University System, which has largely avoided the controversy that embroiled the state’s two largest university systems: UT and the Texas A&M University System.

McCall also marked the anniversary by calling for further improvements in the coming year, including increasing the use of electronic textbooks and examining ways to reduce planning and construction costs for new facilities.

“Now that the pace has been set, we know what we must continue to do,” he said in his report. “The future is the result of what we do now.”

Reporting by Reeve Hamilton of the Texas Tribune.