Texas A&M Launches Far-Reaching Plan to Raise Retention and Graduation Rates

October 29, 2012

Texas A&M University will unveil an ambitious plan here on Monday to fix a leaky educational pipeline by monitoring students from the time they enter kindergarten until they graduate from college.

The program, which it calls EmpowerU, is the result of a year-long brainstorming process among leaders of the sprawling system's 11 diverse campuses.

It started with a sobering look at the number of students who fail to graduate and the economic toll that takes on the state.

"One of the first things we had to do was admit the problem," said Elaine Mendoza, the system regent who helped lead the effort.

Out of 13,540 students who entered the university system in 2004, nearly 5,000, or more than one-third, had not graduated six years later. "They left with lost dreams, lost hopes, and lost financial-aid dollars" ($51.5-million, to be exact), she said. Their average debt was $11,700, and the state lost more than $25-million that it had invested in Texas A&M students who didn't complete a degree.

The plan that university leaders came up with, which the system will describe in a news conference at the State Capitol, includes an interactive Web site with customized data about enrollment, graduation rates, and the cost of educating students on each campus.

"You get to see everything—the good, the bad, and the ugly—about our system and how we're meeting our goals," said the system's chancellor, John Sharp.

One of the most effective ways to do that, he said, is by reaching students much earlier.

"It's not enough anymore for higher education to say, 'Let us have them when they're 18 and we hope they're ready,'" Mr. Sharp said. "For us to have the greatest impact, we have to go all the way back to the day a student enters kindergarten."

EmpowerU sets broad goals for working with the public-school systems, mostly through Texas A&M's schools of education. Goals include measuring the productivity of the teachers the programs graduate, as well as of the principals and superintendents they train; improving science and mathematics training for elementary teachers; and smoothing the transition from high school to college. System officials also hope to track how well specific groups of students from certain schools are performing in different disciplines.

"If we saw a high population of Hispanic females from San Antonio graduate in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] fields, wouldn't we want to go there and see what's in the water so we can replicate it elsewhere?" said Ms. Mendoza.

Another goal is streamlining the process of transferring from two- to four-year campuses. Students shouldn't have to find out, after taking 30 credit hours in a community college, that only 10 of them will transfer, Mr. Sharp said.

Common Goals, Diverse Campuses

One of the first steps in developing EmpowerU was zeroing in on a common set of learning goals that all of the campuses agreed were important. The list included using ethical reasoning, understanding global sensitivities, demonstrating subject-matter expertise, and being able to clearly express ideas to diverse audiences. Each campus then came up with its own way of measuring how well students were meeting those goals.

The system's 11 campuses include a major research university, an international campus on the Texas-Mexico border, and a predominantly black campus, each with different missions and challenges.

"We can't punish our regionals. They won't be successful if they get dinged for offering developmental education," said Ms. Mendoza.

At the same time, said Mr. Sharp, universities shouldn't have to spend so much time teaching students what they should have learned in high school. "We may get kids who are in the top 10 percent of their classes, and they still don't know algebra," he said. "That's not acceptable. We have to put in algebra labs and all kinds of remedial programs, and that costs a lot of money and wastes a lot of students' time."

Raymund A. Parades, Texas' higher-education commissioner, said he welcomed the Texas A&M plan, which will expand on the accountability data his office publishes for each university. Those data are also used in the productivity "dashboard" that the University of Texas system unveiled last year.

"I think it's very exciting," he said of the A&M plan. "It responds to virtually every complaint that we've heard about higher education in the last four or five years around the country."

Concepcion C. Hickey heads a program that offers support services for first- and second-year students at Texas A&M International University, in the border city of Laredo. The university's six-year graduation rate, according to the analytics site, is 48 percent, compared with 85 percent at the flagship campus, in College Station.

While she supports holding campuses accountable for graduating students faster, "it can't all be about the numbers," she said. "There are so many variables that are out of our control." Her campus's predominantly Hispanic student body includes many students who are struggling to take classes while they work to support their families, she said.

State Rep. Dan Branch, a Republican who is chairman of the Texas House of Representatives Higher Education Committee, sponsored legislation calling for 10 percent of a university's state support to be tied to outcomes such as graduation rates. He said he might favor bumping that up to 25 percent this year.

Analytics sites help lawmakers and others make sense of the statistics, he said. "It's like stepping into the cockpit of an airplane when you're not a pilot. It seems like there are 100 dials, and you don't know which are the most important." With the metrics and goals A&M and other universities are coming up with, "legislators are going to feel much more comfortable funding them."