How UT-Austin and Texas A&M stack up against their peers

December 07, 2012
Bill McKenzie | Dallas Morning News

 

Higher education will be a major issue in the 2013 Legislature, as lawmakers continue to focus on how efficient Texas’ public universities operate and how much money they deserve.

This week, a report was put out by the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, an organization that was formed in response to critiques of the state’s flagship universities. I did an email exchange Thursday with Dr. Michael McLendon, the author of the study, “Committed to Excellence: An Assessment of the Conditions and Outcomes of Undergraduate Education at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University.” You can read the report at this link.

McLendon is associate dean of SMU’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development, where he also is a professor of higher education policy and leadership. Before coming recently to SMU, he was on the faculty at Vanderbilt University. While there, he conducted this analysis of the state’s top two universities.

Let’s start with what appears to be the positive conclusion of this report about UT-Austin and Texas A&M. You write that “Overall, the findings indicate that both universities are excelling in many aspects of their undergraduate educational missions and that they remain an excellent value for students and for the state.” What are some examples to back up that claim?

The study found numerous indicators of high performance. For example, student quality, selectivity, and demand at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University are outstanding. The six-year graduation rates of UT-Austin and Texas A&M are right on par with those of the institutions’ peers and stand well above the average of other Public Research I universities. The universities remain a great bargain: each university charges prices that are lower than the averages of their peers, those being among the finest public universities in the nation. Additionally, each university has undertaken a variety of initiatives in their undergraduate curricula that evidence the universities are paying very close attention to improving student learning outcomes on campuses.

But obviously a lot of Texans feel college is not accessible to them, largely because of the costs. Your report cites “mission creep” as one reason expenses are increasing at universities in general. How would you assess the impact “mission creep” has on the cost of a UT or A&M education?

That’s correct, and prices to attend colleges and universities in the U.S. have steeply risen over the past 25 years. One reason for this is that the fiscal and budget outlook for many states has been very bad, and states have begun retreating as the primary financial stakeholders in public higher education. As states spend less on public higher education over time, public colleges and universities inevitably raise tuition.

One of the report’s findings is that the rises in tuition and fees at UT-Austin and Texas A&M in recent years have been less than the average of the increases seen at the universities’ peers and at the nation’s 70 other Public Research I institutions. Of course, the universities must continue working hard to hold down costs and prices.

Mission creep can result from the actions of institutions, and it can also result from states asking or requiring them to do that which is not fundamental to their mission. Public research universities have perhaps the hardest mission of any type of college or university in the country: to educate undergraduates and graduates, to prepare future scientists and scholars, and to serve as the research and technology backbone of our nation’s economy.

In my view, UT-Austin and Texas A&M have remained true to their calling as universities that are capable of fulfilling this complex, unique mission. But the universities and the state must work hard to ensure they possess the leadership and the resources to achieve the mission

How well do you think UT and A&M align their research with their core mission? This seems one way that public research universities can remain relevant and accessible to the residents of their states.

This is one of the most important questions today for research universities. UT-Austin and Texas A&M are leveraging their impressive research capacity on behalf of undergraduate student learning in a number of ways.

For example, UT’s “Signature Course” initiative introduces undergraduates to analysis of important, societal issues from an interdisciplinary perspective. Many of the courses in the program consist of courses taught by research faculty with proven records as excellent instructors. In First-Year Signature Courses, particular emphasis is paid to improving the writing and communications skills of entering students.

Likewise, A&M has launched an effort called “Freshman Critical Thinking Seminars.” Faculty leaders of the seminars focus on critical thinking in small, topical seminars. Some students are designing learning portfolios centered around the components of research, interdisciplinary work, entrepreneurship, globalism, and service. And the program involves student capstone projects in which students must demonstrate their use of these components.

So the two universities have initiated important curricular changes that utilize research faculty as instructors and that also help students learn how to develop critical skills of inquiry and analysis, skills that will position the students well for future success.

I would add that the two universities have created many opportunities for undergraduates to be able to work in the laboratories and on the research teams of faculty, which in turn provides students excellent opportunities to learn how to analyze problems, to think critically, to weigh evidence, and to understand better how to reason through complex decisions.

Your report lauds UT for recruiting well among Latinos and Asian-Americans. About 20 percent of its undergraduate student body is Hispanic and 17 percent is Asian-American. But you note that the numbers aren’t so good for African-Americans and that the university could do a better job creating a welcoming environment for them. What do you have in mind?

It’s important that efforts be made as early as possible to integrate these students, both academically and socially, into the universities. Careful monitoring of students’ performance in their first year of college is key. So are early interventions, using advisors and faculty to help ensure student integration and performance. Successful freshman orientation programs and continued, effective faculty advising throughout the course of students’ educational experience are esssential.

The report cites UT and A&M doing a respectable job in graduating students in six years, but not so much in four years. Why is that? What can be done about four-year graduation rates?

Almost all universities in the nation have seen the time taken for students to complete their undergraduate degree rise over the past several decades. Part of the reason has involved higher prices, the fact that some students are working more than before, and growing degree requirements in some disciplines. Also, students are making different choices than in generations past about their college experience.

The initiatives unveiled this year at UT and at Texas A&M, which aim toward very substantial increases in the four-year completion rates of undergraduates, contain many of the elements that are essential in improving timely degree completion. These include: redesigning the first-year orientation experience to emphasize academic awareness and student integration into university life; creating online tools that help students and their advisors monitor student progress toward a degree; eliminating “bottleneck” courses, which slow or impede student progress to degree because of the unavailability of class seats; and, considering newer financial incentives for students for making wise decisions about courses and degree completion, as in the case of lowering tuition for summer classes to encourage students to take more courses and thus to move more quickly toward graduation.

There are dozens of kinds of improvements that colleges and universities – both public and private – can make to improve timely degree completion. UT and Texas A&M are now experimenting with many of these approaches.

 

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