Later this month, well over 100,000 students will set foot for the first time on Texas public university campuses. Unfortunately, if current trends hold, a great many of them will never finish their degrees – or even return for their sophomore years.
The graduation rate of college students in Texas is dismal. Approximately 57 percent of college entrants graduate – and this only after six years. Graduation rates, after six years, at the University of Texas-Austin and Texas A&M University are 77.5 percent and 78.4 percent respectively.
At many other Texas schools, however, the graduation rate is pathetically low. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, for example, reports that “only 1 of 8 freshmen who started at the University of Houston’s downtown campus in 2002 had earned a diploma six years later.” And Governor Rick Perry reported this May that “four-year graduation rates at Texas institutions of higher education currently average just 28.6 percent.”
Such drop outs nationwide cost students and taxpayers billions of dollars. Associated Press education writer Eric Gorski reports that “states appropriated almost $6.2 billion for four-year colleges and universities between 2003 and 2008 to help pay for the education of students who did not return for year two.” And he adds, “the federal government spent $1.5 billion and states spent $1.4 billion on grants for students who didn’t start their sophomore years.”
Note the crucial crossroads at the end of the freshman year.
Having taught college for 27 years and presently teaching college freshmen, I can report from long experience that the freshman year is the most critical turning point for new students. They are impressionable, vulnerable, and often afraid. Yet university administrators and professors pay little or no attention to them.
A parent asked then-Dartmouth President John Kemeny what the most important question was that parents should ask in determining where to send their kids. He responded, “Ask them who teaches the freshmen.”
At most universities, it is not professors.
A few years ago, the Texas Public Policy Foundation found that during the spring 2006 semester at Texas A&M University, 25 out of 28 sections of Composition and Rhetoric (English 104) were taught by young, inexperienced graduate students.
No doubt some of these young graduate students were good teachers. But Derek Bok, former president of Harvard for 20 years, reports: “Most graduate students lack the experience to deal with the challenges of a basic composition course.” Therefore, he concludes, “freshmen in the writing course lose out.”
To be sure, there are many reasons students drop out of school, but neglect is surely one of them.
So what should administrators do about this? They should assign freshman courses to far more professors.
Two recent major studies reveal that most professors at the University of Texas-Austin have very light teaching loads. The Center for College Affordability and Productivity’s study in May and Rick O’Donnell’s just released study together reveal that some 70 percent of professors teach fewer than 100 students a year. That is a very light teaching load by any measure, and it is an exorbitant luxury that must be paid for by students and taxpayers. Such alarming cost is another reason students drop out.
The faculty productivity data at Texas A&M is quite similar, as I’m sure it would be at a broad swath of public research universities if such data were publicly available.
The “signature courses” recently implemented at UT-Austin are a first step in the right direction. Even so, it would not be unreasonable to assign more freshman courses to professors with light teaching loads.
Many professors would fight such an assignment tooth and nail. Which takes me to the observation that Adam Smith made in the 18th century: “The discipline of colleges and universities is in general contrived, not for the benefit of the students, but for the interest, or more properly speaking, for the ease of the masters.” Texas students and taxpayers can no longer afford such an arrangement.
Ronald L. Trowbridge, Ph.D., is a resident of The Woodlands and a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin. Trowbridge formerly served as vice president of Hillsdale College in Michigan.