Study calls Texas public colleges ‘dropout factories’

PublicBy Benjamin Wermund, Houston Chronicle

Students move into dorm rooms in Alvarez Hall at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Texas public colleges are “dropout factories” where students have just a 40 percent chance at earning a degree within six years, according to a recent report that paints a stark picture of higher education in the state and across the nation.

The dropout problem isn’t exclusive to Texas and is exacerbating the national student debt crisis, as many students who left college took out loans to attend classes but never got the degrees to make it worth the cost, the report says.

“We’re still letting students take out loans to attend a school they might have an 8-in-10 chance of not graduating from,” said Tamara Hiler, a senior policy adviser at the Washington research group Third Way, the nonprofit that produced the report. “The fact that we invest so much of our federal taxpayer money in the higher education system and yet we don’t really ask for anything in return is, I think, a little questionable.”

In San Antonio, the overall chances of University of Texas at San Antonio students graduating within six years is a little higher.

While the university reports 31 percent of its full-time students who enrolled as first-time freshmen in fall 2008 graduated within six years, an additional 23 percent of those students graduated within six years from other higher education institutions.

It’s those additional students that the study released last week doesn’t take into account, officials and university leaders point out.

They say that makes the report’s picture incomplete, yet the report casts a broad brush when counting “dropouts.”

Overall, 8 percent of the Texans who earned degrees last year got them after transferring schools. The report doesn’t count them, because federal data only count students who graduate from the school where they first enrolled.

“I think they would be surprised to find out they’re a dropout,” David Gardner, the state’s deputy commissioner of higher education, said in reference to students who graduate from another university. “It’s not that their (study) numbers are wrong; they just don’t tell the complete story.”


Graduation rates at Texas colleges are below the national average, according to the report, which analyzed U.S. Education Department data.

Nationally, college students have a 50-50 shot of graduating within six years, the report said. And at a time when students across the nation are grappling with historic levels of debt, the report finds they’re having a harder time finding jobs that will pay them enough to dig themselves out of the hole.

At the average Texas university, one-third of students earn less than $25,000 a year six years after they enroll.

Unlike high schools — which can face federal penalties for graduating less than two-thirds of their seniors — colleges aren’t held to any such standards by the federal government. If they were, the report said, 85 percent of U.S. public colleges would be flagged for possible intervention.

Texas, like many states across the country, has considered tying higher education funding to performance measures, such as graduation rates.

One proposal that gained some traction in the last state legislative session and will likely see a renewed push next year would offer additional funding to colleges that succeed in graduating students considered to be the most at-risk of dropping out — first-generation, minority and low-income students.

“The questions raised here are important,” Gardner said of the report. “They’re questions we’re actively pursuing and have been.”

Houston is home to some of the schools with the lowest graduation rates in the state — and even in the nation.

Those include the University of Houston-Downtown, where just 13 percent of students earn a degree within six years, and Texas Southern University, which the report calls one of the nation’s “worst offenders.”

TSU, which has the eighth-lowest completion rate of any four-year college in the nation, also charges students more than the national average, the report shows.

Officials at TSU didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Both TSU and UH-Downtown would benefit from the type of performance-based funding model Texas leaders have considered putting in place.

At schools like both UH-Downtown and TSU, many students work their way through college and take more than six years to graduate. Many students transfer from UH-Downtown to the flagship campus in south Houston before graduating.

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