Cracking Down on Students Who Stay

The University of Texas may mandate students graduate in five years or less.

March 16, 2010, 12:04 PM

March 17, 2010— -- While they may be called four-year institutions, schools like the University of Texas at Austin have more than a few undergraduates who stick around longer.

UT senior Antonio Del Bosque, 24, has been working on his diploma for six years. Come May 22, the Eagle Pass, Texas, native will finally graduate alongside his peers, many of whom are a couple years younger.

"I always get the 'Are you that dumb that you've been there for so long?' type of look when I tell people how old I am and how long I've been in school," Del Bosque said. "It really is nobody's business."

But University of Texas officials may soon disagree.

Last month, members of the Second Task Force on Enrollment Strategy recommended the school's administration adopt a 10-semester limit on how long students can stay to pursue their degree in Austin. This academic restriction would probably be the first of its kind, said Steven Leslie, UT executive vice president and provost, who appointed the task force.

"The intent is not to get out any student," said Isabella Cunningham, the task force's chairwoman. "[It's] to provide the right kind of environment to have a successful career at the University of Texas."

To receive a bachelor's degree, UT students must finish 120 hours of coursework -- either 12 hours a semester for 10 semesters, or 15 hours a semester over the course of four years. Cunningham said the average student's academic career spans 4.5 years, or nine semesters.

According to the Office of Information Management and Analysis, a little more than half of the school's 38,168 undergraduate students finish in four years or fewer, with an additional 23 percent graduating within five years. While 5 percent more graduate within six years, it's estimated that approximately 19 percent of undergraduate students take more than six years to obtain a bachelor's degree at UT -- if they get one at all.

"There are some students that really don't have any stimulus to finish their degree, and [they] get caught up in the system," Cunningham said.

Interestingly enough, the system has actually seen this sort of proposal before. In 2003, the First Task Force on Enrollment Strategy suggested the same semester cap, though it was never implemented.

However, Leslie said, the introduction of the flat-rate tuition helped improve graduation rates. UT students must pay tuition set at a price, based upon 14 hours of coursework, even if they are taking fewer hours.

Making Room for New Students

Leslie added that one of the goals of the second task force was to identify "opportunities to increase efficiency and the flow of students through the pipeline of degree pursuits."

But with more and more students continuing to overstay their welcome, Cunningham said, there may not be enough spots for potential incoming students.

"We have more of a problem with students who decide they want to have two, three, four majors," Cunningham said. "Let's be reasonable -- finish your major or majors, and if you can make three majors in five years, more power to you. Then, after five years, we're ready to tell you that maybe if you want to add to your instruction, go to graduate school."

Del Bosque is one such student. After arriving at the university in 2004 as an education major, he has since added two additional majors: Mexican-American studies his fourth year, and youth and community studies his last year.

"I promised myself that I would get at least one degree from this university, being that I have been here this long," said Del Bosque. "I didn't want to rush my schooling, [so] I felt it was necessary for me to get as much as I could from it."

And then there are the colleges that encourage students to finish in fewer than four years.

The University of North Carolina-Greensboro recently announced it was launching 'UNCG in 3,' a three-year degree program beginning this fall that will be offered to freshmen coming in with at least 12 college credit hours. According to a school press release, the initiative is geared toward "highly motivated students."

"[The program] is a response to demand for students who want an accelerated program," said Dan Nonte, UNC's assistant director of communications. "Students will have to take a fairly heavy course load to make it through in this amount of time."

Florida State University has a similar program, Degree in Three, for students who enter the university with college credits. Lipscomb University in Tennessee also has a three-year plan and claims that more than 50 of their major programs of study can be completed within that time period.

Sen. Lamar Alexander R-Tenn., a former secretary of Education, has even voiced his opinion regarding such programs.

Accelerated Programs

"The three-year degree could become the higher-education equivalent of the fuel-efficient car," Alexander wrote in an article for Newsweek. "And that's both an opportunity and a warning for the best higher-education system in the world."

Other universities are sticking to the traditional four-year route. School officials at the University of Virginia say that, although there is no limit as to how long undergraduate students can stay, they highly encourage them to finish within four years. In fact, the school has an 84.5 percent four-year graduation rate among its nearly 14,000 undergraduate students.

Cunningham said UT hopes to follow in the footsteps of schools like UVa and the University of California-Berkeley, which boasts a 69 percent four-year graduation rate.

But Leslie said the 10-semester limit is still just a recommendation and will stay that way until a decision has been reached among the school's administration, adding that there was no timeline by which he was working on.

Even if the proposal is accepted, there would be exceptions. Students struggling with learning disabilities, financial problems or family issues may be exempt from the semester cap so long as their cases are approved by their respective deans. Also, because of their course load, students in areas such as architecture and engineering will not have to worry about finishing within five years.

"In my mind, we don't sacrifice opportunities of existing students or needs of existing students in order to speed up the process," Leslie said. "But we do want to be purposeful in attending to all processes so that we can create better access to students coming in."

Although Cunningham said she has received positive feedback about the recommendation, at least one student remains skeptical.

"I really don't think it should be implemented," Del Bosque said. "If a person wants to learn, then let them learn. Why should there be a time limit?" contributor Xorjes Olivares is a member of the University of Texas at Austin ABC News on Campus bureau.

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