At UT, a Struggle to Graduate in 4 Years
UT is making changes to help more students graduate in four years as they fight the many factors that can slow them down.
Some students progress steadily through their college years, like UT graduate students Sarah Lindig and Christine Imperatore.
“I actually graduated in 3½ years,” Imperatore said. “It wasn’t all that difficult for me.”
“I went into school with a declared major, so it was all very methodical, I knew what courses I need to take,” said Lindig.
For others, it’s a struggle that can be overcome. Amanda Nandall says the academic work is difficult, but she’s sticking with her major and staying focused on her goal of finishing in four years.
“I’m doing everything I can, because I don’t want to spend another year in college that I don’t have to,” Nandall said. “I’d rather be out in the workforce.”
None of those students is the norm in Texas. At the state’s public four-year universities, only 30 percent of students finish in four years. The rest finish later, at another school, or not at all.
At UT-Austin, 52 percent of students finish in four years. The university has set a goal of graduating 70 percent of incoming freshman in four years. The school created a new vice-provost position responsible for improving the graduation rate, and hired longtime chemistry professor David Laude.
With many more students wanting to attend UT than there are spaces, increasing the graduation rate is partly about creating spots for more incoming freshman.
“If students sit in seats for five years instead of four years, that’s fewer people that have an opportunity to experience the University of Texas,” Laude said.
He says there are many reasons students don’t finish in four years. Important introductory classes often fill up, leaving some students taking unnecessary courses while they wait another semester for the ones they need. Some students have to work while they’re in school. Others may enjoy campus life and want to delay entering an uncertain job market.
But the main reason, he says, is that sometimes-awkward transition from childhood to adulthood, when students need to set their own goals and make their own decisions.
“I meet so many students in my freshman chemistry class who are in my chemistry class, they’re pre-med, and yet if you talk to them about what they really want to do, so often they know what that is, and it’s not sitting in my chemistry class,” he said.
It’s hard to map out a four-year path through college if you haven’t figured out what path you want to take. Freshman Matthew Kluchin declared Radio, TV and Film as his major.
“I’m not exactly sure if RTF is what I want to do with my life,” Kluchin said. “So for all I know it could take me more than that because for all I know I may end up switching halfway through.”
Changing majors puts students behind, and is a major reason many finish late, Charles Thornburgh said. He runs an Austin startup called Civitas Learning, which analyzes data about college students nationwide. Thornburgh says that on average, college students end up taking 20 percent more credits than they need to graduate.
“It’s more common than not to take substantially more credits than you need for your degree,” Thornburgh said. “That’s a function of having changed course a couple of times along the way, and it means your degree is more expensive and it takes longer to get to, and both of those things increase the likelihood that you just won’t get to that finish line at all.”
UT’s total cost of attendance comes in at more than $24,000 per year. For in-state students, getting out a semester or two earlier can have a big effect on a family’s budget and a student’s loan balance.