College grads take long road
Of students entering as freshmen, only 53.6% get bachelor’s in 6 years
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.
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.
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.
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.