UT's Laggard Graduation Rate

It ranks last among SEC universities; how does it hope to reach 80 percent?

After years of listening to University of Tennessee officialdom proclaim its resolve to achieve big gains in the university's graduation rate, it's disheartening to learn that the percentage of undergraduates earning degrees on the Knoxville campus has scarcely budged over the past five years.

The flatlined 59.8 percent graduation rate in the most recent year for which data is available falls far short of a goal set by former President John Petersen to raise the rate to 65 percent by 2010.

In heralding a far more wishful goal to raise the rate to 80 percent by 2020 at a recent board of trustees meeting, Chancellor Jimmy Cheek presented a chart showing UT's graduation rate to be the lowest among 27 "companion schools." But these included only three other Southeastern Conference universities—with Florida at 81 percent, Georgia at 77 percent, and Auburn at 63 percent. So it left the impression that UT was at least doing better than some other set of SEC bottom-feeders. But such is not the case. In fact, data otherwise obtained shows that UT ranks dead last among SEC universities—or at least tied for last with Arkansas. However, the Razorbacks have been making progress in raising their rate to just under 60 percent from 53 percent in 2004 while the Vols have been faltering.

What makes UT's laggard performance all the more disturbing is that it's occurred over a span of time in which the academic quality of the Knoxville campus' student body has dramatically improved. The advent of the state lottery's HOPE scholarship in 2004 has spurred an increase in the average ACT scores of UT's entering freshmen to 26.5 in 2009 from 24.3 in 2003. One would suppose that this rise in academic aptitude alone would be enough to lift all boats. Yet while it has contributed to a significant increase in UT's retention rate of freshmen who return for their sophomore year, no more of them have been staying the course to get diplomas.

That could show a change for the better when the 2010 graduation rate becomes known in December. But the very fact there's such a lag in knowing how many students graduated in the 2009-10 academic year is indicative of one of the major contributors to UT's poor performance: namely, defective student tracking systems.

"It's no secret that we've been data challenged at this institution," says Sally McMillan, vice provost for academic affairs. "We've said we want to increase graduation rates, but we haven't identified touch points that are important to making sure we do, partly because we've been so challenged with having the data that we've needed."

McMillan is UT's point person for getting things headed in the right direction. Since she's only been in the post for six months, she's able to beg off from addressing why things went wrong in the past. (The fact the position had been vacant for many months may be indicative of one of them.)

McMillan is pinning a lot of hope on a new system known as UTrack that's due to come on line in the fall of 2012, which she says is "just a nanosecond away in academic terms." Among other features, UTrack will help pair students with the courses they need to graduate from both the top down and the bottom up. In the aggregate, it will identify "bottleneck" courses for which more sections are needed to meet student demand. At the individual student level, it will help steer them toward a curriculum that's focused on getting needed credit hours in a timely way.

Better systems are only one part of the solution that McMillan envisions. More and better student advisory services is another. This year, for the first time, every incoming freshman is meeting one-on-one with an adviser during their orientation, and the College of Arts & Sciences alone has added four adviser positions. McMillan believes this will help students get off to a better start, and "the advising centers will remain actively engaged so that if a student falls off track, they will get active intervention from an adviser."

Another emphasis is on getting students more engaged with each other in a variety of ways including participation in what McMillan terms "smaller learning communities... We've got to find ways to make this big campus small for them." For example, most of the underclassmen in UT's honors program are now housed together on dedicated floors of Morrill Hall where they participate in special seminars.

The honors program is a particular point of concern because of another disturbing trend: As the number of top-tier students with ACT scores of 30 and above has grown, their retention rate has actually declined, perhaps because they haven't been sufficiently challenged. In an effort to rectify this, the size of the honors program is being doubled to include about 10 percent of this year's 4,200 incoming freshmen. This has meant adding "a host of additional classes for honors students" at the same time more are needed to relieve bottlenecks.

Unfortunately, all of this comes at a time when the university is also being instructionally challenged. When federal stimulus funding that has kept UT afloat runs out after this coming academic year, severe cuts in state appropriations will inexorably mean severe cuts in faculty positions. Nobody can, or will, say how many will be lost, but the best guess is upwards of 100, which is on the order of 10 percent.

In an effort to compensate for these losses, senior tenured faculty members are being encouraged to increase their undergraduate teaching loads. Yet Cheek is also warning that fewer course offerings and larger class sizes are in the offing. And, unless the economic recovery is far more robust than generally predicted, this could continue to be the case for several years.

Thus, it comes as a source of dismay that UT's rah-rah chancellor is also calling for a big increase in the number of graduate students and emphasizing faculty research as part of a seemingly quixotic quest to make UT one of the nation's top 25 public research universities.

Increasing UT's output of college graduates should be its top priority in these troubled times, and unless Cheek stops trying to be all things to all people, his name may well be added to the list of UT's failed administrators that includes its last three presidents.