Education
5:53 am
Wed August 28, 2013

Odds Stacked Against Four-Year College Graduation

A new school year starts today for the more than 50,000 students at the University of Texas at Austin. Students at St. Edwards, Huston-Tillotson, Southwestern and Texas State also started classes this week.

But how many of those students are prepared for college success and on-time graduation? The numbers don’t look so good.

Fifty percent of students across the country change their major at least once. Less than a third graduate in four years. And half of those graduates move on to a career that didn’t require the degree they earned.

Jeff Cameron has collected those numbers and more from various studies and articles. He’s the founder of a Houston-based company that reaches out to students lacking direction.

“I did some research and discovered that high school and college students typically get these really kind of simplistic, childish, free career tools," Cameron said. "And I felt like for the money and the time that they spend in college, they deserve better.”

He founded u-Journey.com. As a video on the website says, it's "the only professional-level, fully-integrated, online career coaching tool on the market.”

Cameron says getting college students through school and onto a successful career path in four years requires addressing one root issue.

“There’s that very nature of human-ness that says ‘what do I really want to do with my life?’" Cameron said. "So, until you really wrestle with that issue head-on, I think you’re going to continue to have big challenges getting students through the system in four years.”

So do students really know what they want to do? KUT asked a few on UT’s campus:

“Well, I’ve always wanted to be a doctor ever since I was little," UT freshman Iliana Gasca said.

“I’ve always known what I wanted to do. I didn’t need any assessments or anything," UT junior Alan Dukor said.

In fact, none of the students KUT talked to had taken an assessment to find out which career might best suit them. But they all seemed pretty confident in their choices. Still, Cameron says, with an assessment, students might discover a better fit.

“We have a lot of students who look at occupations they’d never heard of before," Cameron said. "Being an actuary. Very few people know what an actuary is. But if you’re the right person for that kind of occupation, it’s a great job for you.”

At UT-Austin, just over half of students who enter as freshmen graduate in four years – 52 percent. That is actually the highest 4-year graduation rate at any public college in the state. But UT thinks it can do better.

David Laude is a chemistry professor and senior vice provost for enrollment and graduation management at UT. But he is also the university’s designated “4-year graduation rate champion.”

“The students we get who come to UT are just extraordinary when it comes to their academic potential," Laude said. "But they need to have that framed for them correctly. They have to show up knowing, ‘you know what, those five classes that I’m taking this fall semester, from the very moment I arrive in class, I need to be able to perform.’”

UT wants to get its on-time graduation rate up to 70 percent by 2016. The university is working on that in a number of ways – from online tools, to a branding campaign labeling incoming freshmen as “the class of 2017.”

A new program launched this summer focused on students who, based on demographics, might have a tougher time graduating on time – including Iliana Gasca.

“I’m actually doing the Summer Bridge program right now, which is giving me a heads-up to finish off my basics and get ready for medical school and stuff," Gasca said.

Gasca was one of about 200 freshmen UT brought to campus early – to help them transition into life as a Longhorn.

“We paid for their tuition and room and board as they took a writing course and a math course. And we also provided a lot of supplemental instruction for them," Laude said.

Students who passed both courses got a $1 thousand scholarship. All of the students passed.

So will it all be enough to make a difference? u-Journey.com founder Jeff Cameron says young people need to be forced to think about their futures.

“The American Association of Community Colleges issued a report in 2012. And the single biggest thing that they found was that, fundamentally, college students don’t do optional. They don’t attend orientation, they don’t use educational services, they don’t use career services," Cameron said.

Cameron says it needs to be required – either by parents or schools.

But UT and “four-year graduation champion” Laude are working on other avenues to success.

“This idea that you would force everybody to do something, that never works," he said. "I think 18-year-olds , like 36-year-olds, know that they’re going to do something because they believe in it, they want to be a part of it. We have to create the culture on campus that makes people say, ‘but I want to show up on Tuesday afternoons at 3 o’clock for a small community in the same way that I want to show up on Saturday morning for a football game.’”

So as UT students head back to class, the odds of a four-year-graduation may not look so good. But there are plenty of options for those who want to – to improve their chances.