Col­lege grads take long road

Of stu­dents en­ter­ing as fresh­men, only 53.6% get bach­e­lor’s in 6 years

The Dallas Morning News - - Front Page - By EVA-MARIE AYALA Staff Writer eay­ala@dal­las­news.com

Par­ents pre­par­ing to send their kids off to col­lege shouldn’t be shocked if the jour­ney takes longer than the ex­pected four years.

Only a lit­tle more than half of Texas stu­dents — 53.6 per­cent — who en­ter as fresh­men end up with a bach­e­lor’s de­gree within six years, ac­cord­ing to re­cently re­leased fed­eral data.

In fact, only a dozen uni­ver­si­ties in Texas grad­u­ated more than two-thirds of their 2010 fresh­man class within six years.

“Our six-year grad­u­a­tion rate is at about the national av­er­age but it still isn’t any­thing to brag about,” said Ray­mund Pare­des, the Texas com­mis­sioner over pub­lic higher ed­u­ca­tion.

Bol­ster­ing the state’s over­all rate are top-tier schools in­clud­ing Rice Univer­sity (93 per­cent), the Univer­sity of Texas at Austin (81 per­cent), Texas A&M Univer­sity (80 per­cent) and South­ern Methodist Univer­sity (79 per­cent).

Area schools with higher grad­u­a­tion rates in­clude Texas Chris­tian Univer­sity at 77 per­cent, and the Univer­sity of Texas at Dal­las and the Univer­sity of Dal­las, which both

have a 67 per­cent rate.

The rest of Texas’ schools — pub­lic and pri­vate — start fall­ing off fast.

Some in higher ed­u­ca­tion note that the trends aren’t much dif­fer­ent than they were decades ago, when some gruff pro­fes­sors told their stu­dents to look to ei­ther side of them and take note that one of them wouldn’t be there in four years. It was al­most a point of pride.

But Texas has big dreams when it comes to col­lege.

In 2015, Gov. Greg Ab­bott set an am­bi­tious goal for at least 60 per­cent of the state’s 25- to 34-year-olds to earn a de­gree or a post­sec­ondary cer­tifi­cate by 2030.

And some worry the state’s lag­ging grad­u­a­tion rates won’t quite make reach­ing that goal pos­si­ble.

Who’s left out?

Luis Calderon knew earn­ing a col­lege de­gree in mu­sic would be dif­fi­cult. He loves the French horn, but he’s hear­ing im­paired in one ear.

So he prac­ticed harder. Stud­ied longer. He even started tak­ing dual-credit cour­ses in high school, which got him on the fast track to grad­u­at­ing early from Texas Wes­leyan Univer­sity.

“I thought there’s no way [mu­sic] would play a role in my life,” said Calderon, who now wants to earn a master’s. “But I re­ally worked to grad­u­ate in three years.”

Calderon, how­ever, doesn’t count — at least not when it comes to look­ing at fed­eral grad­u­a­tion rates.

His small, pri­vate univer­sity ap­peared to grad­u­ate only 30 per­cent of its stu­dents, ac­cord­ing to its most re­cent fed­eral grad­u­a­tion rate that tracked stu­dents who started col­lege in 2010.

But higher ed­u­ca­tion of­fi­cials across the na­tion have long com­plained about the way that rate is cal­cu­lated be­cause it only rep­re­sents what was once con­sid­ered the “tra­di­tional stu­dent,” a first-time fresh­man start­ing school full time and fin­ish­ing at the same univer­sity.

It doesn’t ac­count for stu­dents like Calderon who en­roll with a sig­nif­i­cant amount of col­lege credit al­ready earned in high school. Many Texas high school stu­dents now earn as­so­ciate’s de­grees along with diplo­mas. The fed­eral rate also doesn’t in­clude stu­dents who trans­fer into a univer­sity, those who at­tend part time, and older adults who re­turn to school.

At Texas Wes­leyan, for ex­am­ple, 58 per­cent of the stu­dents who trans­ferred in dur­ing the fall of 2010 had grad­u­ated by spring 2016.

And non­tra­di­tional stu­dents are the tar­get de­mo­graphic for the Univer­sity of North Texas at Dal­las, a small cam­pus that be­gan of­fer­ing cour­ses in 2000.

“There’s noth­ing else like us in Texas,” said pres­i­dent Bob Mong. “Our mis­sion is to serve ur­ban Dal­las stu­dents. It’s harder, but we’re do­ing it.”

Help­ing ur­ban kids

UNT-Dal­las has var­i­ous ef­forts in place aimed at get­ting more stu­dents from im­pov­er­ished back­grounds into col­lege. That in­cludes work­ing with area early col­lege high schools and the Dal­las County Part­ner­ship that aims to get more high school­ers to earn cred­its through the Dal­las County Com­mu­nity Col­lege District be­fore go­ing on to uni­ver­si­ties. Other part­ner­ships of­fer joint en­roll­ment be­tween El Cen­tro and UNTDal­las.

Most of the stu­dents en­rolled through those pro­grams won’t ever count to­ward the fed­eral grad­u­a­tion rate, which shows that only 33 per­cent of tra­di­tional stu­dents who started at the school in 2010 had grad­u­ated from the school six years later.

The state’s data shows that UNT-Dal­las has a 42.1 per­cent grad­u­a­tion rate for those who started at the school in 2011. The Texas Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Co­or­di­nat­ing Board counts all first-time en­ter­ing stu­dents — even those who came with col­lege credit hours — and gives schools credit for those who go on to grad­u­ate from an­other Texas in­sti­tu­tion.

Just a few years ago, only about half of the stu­dents who started at UNT-Dal­las re­turned for an­other year, Mong said. Now that’s up to 77 per­cent. He cred­ited ef­forts like block sched­ul­ing and more sup­port sys­tems to help stu­dents from low-in­come fam­i­lies, such as a food pantry on cam­pus.

Texas’ ef­forts

The fed­eral grad­u­a­tion rate still re­mains one of the most con­sis­tent met­rics for fam­i­lies to look at when con­sid­er­ing where to send their chil­dren to col­lege. In­di­vid­ual schools tend to have their own way of cal­cu­lat­ing data, and that can make com­par­isons dif­fi­cult.

Texas’ most re­cent grad­u­a­tion rate is only slightly bet­ter than it was in 1996, when 48.7 per­cent of stu­dents were grad­u­at­ing within six years.

Such lack­lus­ter re­sults could make it dif­fi­cult to reach the gov­er­nor’s so-called 60 x 30 ef­fort.

A progress re­port this sum­mer showed that an es­ti­mated 42.3 per­cent of Texas res­i­dents ages 25 to 34 had at least a cer­tifi­cate from a higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tion in 2016. That was up slightly from 41 per­cent the pre­vi­ous year. Texas needs big­ger an­nual gains to meet the goal.

“We’re mak­ing progress, but we’re not get­ting bet­ter fast enough,” Pare­des said.

Pare­des has noted that part of the is­sue is that most stu­dents who start col­lege aren’t quite ready. Only about a third of those tak­ing the SAT earn scores high enough to show they’re pre­pared, he said.

Fo­cus on suc­cess

An­other rea­son grad­u­a­tion rates haven’t im­proved is be­cause many schools didn’t worry much about re­ten­tion, Pare­des said.

“His­tor­i­cally, the fo­cus has been a large em­pha­sis on ac­cess, but not enough on stu­dent suc­cess af­ter they en­roll,” he said.

That’s chang­ing as col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties up their game to get more stu­dents across the fin­ish line.

For ex­am­ple, Pare­des pointed to UT Sys­tem ef­forts that em­ploy so­phis­ti­cated data soft­ware to spot early warn­ing signs that a stu­dent is strug­gling, such as drop­ping a class or hav­ing poor grades at cer­tain points in the se­mes­ter. Univer­sity of­fi­cials then can step in and con­nect a stu­dent with tu­tor­ing or other ser­vices that might help.

“We have to change the cul­ture of col­lege where it’s no longer one where you’re on your own to be suc­cess­ful,” he said. “We know that doesn’t work for a lot of our stu­dents.”

Ex­perts say much of col­lege suc­cess is pre­dicted by the in­come level of fam­i­lies. The more they strug­gle with fi­nances, the harder it is for stu­dents to reach grad­u­a­tion.

Of­ten, such stu­dents are first-gen­er­a­tion col­lege stu­dents with no one else in the fam­ily to turn to for ad­vice in nav­i­gat­ing the over­whelm­ing process.

Re­al­ity checks

That’s where com­mu­nity groups like the Dal­las-based non­profit Schol­arShot are try­ing to fill the gap.

Each year, about 50 area high school se­niors are paired up with ad­vis­ers who will men­tor them through­out their col­lege ca­reer.

That means help­ing them with ev­ery­thing from un­der­stand­ing com­pli­cated fi­nan­cial aid pack­ages, to pick­ing the right cour­ses, to teach­ing about bank ac­counts, to deal­ing with un­ex­pected life cir­cum­stances.

And some­times, it means talk­ing stu­dents out of their first choice for col­lege. At least tem­po­rar­ily.

Too of­ten, a fi­nan­cial aid of­fer from a univer­sity falls short of what a stu­dent re­ally needs to make it work, said April Til­lett, aca­demic man­ager for Schol­arShot. Or maybe the teen isn’t quite ready for the full rigor of a univer­sity and would benefit from re­me­dial classes at a com­mu­nity col­lege first.

“Stu­dents can get tun­nel vi­sion about go­ing to a cer­tain school . ... They will take on huge debt and have cheer­lead­ers the whole time say­ing go straight to this univer­sity,” Til­lett said.

But if stu­dents start strug­gling fi­nan­cially or aca­dem­i­cally right away, that makes it even more un­likely for them to reach grad­u­a­tion, she said. So ad­vis­ers are a crit­i­cal voice in en­cour­ag­ing stu­dents to not give up de­spite set­backs.

“It makes a huge dif­fer­ence,” Til­lett said.

Jae S. Lee/Staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

Dual-credit classes taken in high school put mu­sic stu­dent Luis Calderon on track to grad­u­ate early from Texas Wes­leyan Univer­sity. But those same cred­its also ex­cluded him from TWU’s grad­u­a­tion rate. The fed­eral for­mula counts only first-time fresh­men start­ing school full time and fin­ish­ing at the same univer­sity.

SOURCE: National Cen­ter for Ed­u­ca­tion Sta­tis­tics Staff Graphic

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