The real problem at UT: graduation rates

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If the UT regents really want to get to the bottom of the reforms needed at the university, they should forget cockamamie schemes of rating professors according to the number of student taught and the tuition payments their students generate, and they should abandon their attacks on the role of research and on the governance of the university. They should likewise forget about educating students on the cheap, which will inevitably mean larger classes, more multiple choice tests, and more teaching by lecturers instead of faculty (which UT’s critics correctly point out is already a problem.) The problem regents should be focusing on, as former regents chairman Charles Miller points out in the following letter to BurkaBlog, is graduation rates. First, Miller addresses my post of yesterday, “We’re Number 45″: I agree with you that U.T.-Austin can be proud of its ranking at 45th overall and 13th among public universities in the US News rankings [BurkaBlog, May 5, 2011]. For Texas, that means our major school, with its very large enrollment, is the equivalent in number of students to several of the publics above them.  VA, GT and W&M total only slightly more than half of the number of students at UT-A.  UT-A is bigger, by 50% or more, than most of the UC schools.  That’s why when considering UT-A and TAMU enrollment combined, Texas has much more than the equivalent of two top tier universities.  And considering that six of UT medical institutions are top rated in research, Texas is a research powerhouse looking at the UT System alone. But UT-Austin lags badly in graduation rates, having one pf the lowest six year rates among the top 50 in the US News rankings. That’s one of the reasons they’re not ranked even higher and it’s something they are primarily responsible for and can control. Considering that they enroll students on average from the top percentiles in high school class rankings and in test scores and from families whose income is two to three times the average Texas family, the current graduation rate not an acceptable result. It is one of the most costly results — to students, families and taxpayers — on which we can make a quantifiable judgment.  While it’s right to be proud of the 45th ranking, we should be talking about fixing it sooner rather than later. Just saying you want to be number one is not enough and it’s not necessarily lack of state funding that’s the culprit.  When I was on the Board, we allowed UT-A enrollment to decline well below 50,000 students and financed an increased number of faculty members at the same time, which is very costly but important in rankings [UT-A chose to increase enrollment back to the higher current level]. We also arranged to allow UT-A to set its own tuition and we arranged the elimination of the hated ‘research tax’.  Both of those steps combined  provided annual income improvement equivalent to billions of dollars of new endowment funds [$10 billion?]. In addition, substantial new construction projects were undertaken with borrowed money— without harming our AAA bond rating—and with substantial private funding increases UT-Austin has not always received direct state funding equal to others or to its constitutional status, but it has been extremely well served by the State of Texas, its leaders and its taxpayers.  It deserves acclaim.  It also needs to get much more productive in the difficult current circumstances for higher education everywhere to maintain and improve its obvious high quality and high ranking. /s/ Charles Miller

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