UTEP’s degrees don’t add up
Formula misses bigger picture at predominantly Hispanic school
— reported by the Houston Chronicle
Less than 30 percent of UTEP undergraduates complete their coursework in six years. The graduation rate is among the lowest in the nation, drawing the ire of state lawmakers who look closely at the numbers when allocating money.
But how relevant is the “graduation rate” for a university where 54 percent of students receive need-based financial aid and many work jobs on the side? Isn’t earning a degree enough, especially in a state that needs more Hispanic graduates?
How should colleges and universities measure success?
Those are the kinds of questions that have stumped higher education, state and federal officials. U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings recently called for universities to report how well their students learn, and Gov. Rick Perry has floated the idea of an exit exam for college students.
For now, lawmakers place great weight on a university’s ability to keep and graduate its freshmen within six years. With limited resources, they want students to complete their coursework on time rather than taking space at crowded campuses.
The formula may work for ivy-covered universities, such as Princeton, where many students come from wealth and the best high schools. They are on an “express train” to graduation in four years, while many at UTEP ride a “commuter train” that makes many stops, with students getting on and off at different times and for various, but mostly financial, reasons, Natalicio said.
Natalicio would prefer to focus on the total number of undergraduate degrees awarded each year. UTEP conferred 2,106 bachelor’s degrees last year, up from 1,715 five years ago. The increase outpaces enrollment growth over the same period.
What’s more, UTEP graduated more Latinos than all but two universities nationwide last year, according to Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education magazine. The university also produces more Hispanic engineers than any institution.
She is hardly unique at UTEP, which draws 82 percent of its 19,842 students from El Paso County, one of the state’s poorest areas. More than a quarter of the county’s 720,000 residents live in poverty, only two-thirds of adults graduated from high school and three-quarters of residents speak a language other than English at home.
Ten percent of the university’s students live across the Rio Grande in Juarez, Mexico. And while many people in this border region believe higher education is the ticket to a better life, few know how to obtain it.
Cash flow is a real problem for many students, and too many are averse to taking loans, so they may leave school for semesters at a time to work or take fewer classes because the textbooks are too expensive, campus officials said.
UTEP’s students graduate with the lowest average indebtedness among the country’s public research institutions, according to the Institute for College Access and Success’s most recent data. In response, the university is trying to educate students and their families about the long-term advantage of borrowing over taking more time to graduate.