Vanessa Brewer grew up with aspirations to become the first member of her family to earn a college degree. She excelled in high school, but struggled early in her college career at The University of Texas at Austin to find her place. She began to question herself and the abilities that had enabled her to excel in high school. She wasn’t sure whether she truly belonged.
Vanessa’s story is not unusual. Students throughout the country struggle to graduate from college — some finish on time, some finish late, but some don’t finish at all. That disparity among student experiences reveals a serious shortcoming in the higher education system. Graduating — and graduating on time — matters.
In 2016, the average U.S. college student graduating with debt owed $37,172, and many students spent more than the expected four years obtaining their undergraduate degrees. Estimates show that each additional year of college costs a student more than $60,000 in tuition, expenses and lost wages.
If more students were to graduate on time, universities could better serve their students with degree programs that foster academic engagement. By improving graduation rates, average student debt would shrink significantly. It is clear, then, that we have a remarkable opportunity to improve student success while alleviating debt by increasing timely graduation — but how to do it? It starts with a commitment to our students’ education and is brought to life by using extensive data about student success.
The effectiveness of a university should be measured by the number of students it lifts up and supports. To be a great university in 2017, an institution must support opportunities for all of the students it admits from day one and strive for 100 percent graduation.
Once that commitment is in place, then the work begins. By analyzing records and transcripts, universities can identify students who may experience significant challenges during their academic careers. These students often face issues outside of the classroom, from being the first members of their families to attend college, to coming from an under-represented region or underfunded high school, to lacking a strong support structure at home. They have the talent and ambition, but they also have more to overcome than others. By investing in them from the very beginning, we can equip them for success.
Studies and experience have shown that this investment is best realized in the form of academic goal-based scholarship programs, mentoring partnerships, tutoring programs, student-to-student discussion groups, or any number of supportive concepts that foster development and build community. The goal is to make sure students have the resources and support to excel academically and socially and graduate on time.
At The University of Texas at Austin, we have implemented programs like these for our students. Our results show that the strategy works. In 2011, 50.6 percent of our graduates had completed degrees in four years or less. In 2016, that number rose to 60.9 percent. Our goal is to reach 70 percent for the class of 2017.
Other universities have done an excellent job of improving graduation rates, including The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and The University of California campuses. Partnerships between universities provide a forum for collaboration that can produce collective solutions to challenges impacting student achievement.
But the responsibility of graduation doesn’t end with universities. Parents and students also need to get involved, by understanding the significant costs of graduating late and working diligently to make sure they stay on course.
After her early challenges, Vanessa participated in tutoring, leadership training, mentoring and internship programs and her grades improved considerably. She will graduate on time this spring and was recently accepted into a graduate program in nursing. What worked for Vanessa can work for millions of other students across this country.
Higher education can bring change to our communities, and our nation, and opportunity for students who need it most. If we can make education accessible and sustainable for everyone, then everyone can benefit.
Gregory L. Fenves is the president of The University of Texas at Austin.