While “the quest for Tier One” defined the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) under the leadership of Ricardo Romo, President Taylor Eighmy is responding to another mandate: to increase the number of students earning degrees that allow them to pursue their career of choice.
In this effort Eighmy has adopted “an aspirational lens that extends beyond Tier One designation,” he writes in an Oct. 3 letter to the UTSA community. Several themes stood out to Eighmy as he listened to university leaders, students, alumni, donors, and faculty, the letter states.
“We will continue to focus our efforts on the retention and academic success of first-generation and low-income students,” Eighmy writes in the letter. “At the same time, we will define and execute strategies leading to National Research University Fund (NRUF) eligibility and an R1 (highest research activity) classification from the Carnegie Commission as steps along our path to becoming a great discovery enterprise.”
UTSA is the “university of the future,” Eighmy writes, “perfectly positioned to become the model of the next-generation Hispanic-Serving Institution while becoming the discovery enterprise of choice.”
By investing in talented faculty and administration, and continuing to build UTSA’s array of community partners, Eighmy sees the university as an increasingly active voice in the community, with growing opportunities for students.
Eighmy, who took office in September, on Thursday announced a student success initiative, one of three initiatives the new president will use to “tackle the grand challenges” laid out for the university. The initiative will be led by a 26-member task force.
The student success task force is charged with developing services that reach students in the K-12 system, recruit them into UTSA, support them as they earn their degree, and place them in the local, state, and national workforce.
For students to realize the value of their investment in higher education, they first must complete a degree. UTSA’s six-year degree completion rate remained stagnant for decades at 28% as of 2015, according to an internal system report. It was the only school in the UT System not to make progress toward the target rate, 53%, set by the UT System Board of Regents in 2006.
To meet its goals, UTSA has enlisted the help of Education Advisory Board (EAB), a consulting firm that uses data and analytics to facilitate student success. From enrollment to graduation, the services help colleges anticipate the needs of their prospective and enrolled students, and to meet those needs.
“The tradition in higher education is to think that the student knows what to do, and to ask one or two semesters later,” Georgia State Vice President of Enrollment Timothy Renick told a group of higher eduction reporters at an Education Writers Association seminar earlier this month.
Georgia State worked with EAB to become more proactive in helping students stay in college. Of Georgia State's more than 25,000 undergraduate students, 60% fall into the demographics least likely to complete a college degree, according to the U.S. Department of Education. UTSA has just over 24,000 undergraduate students, 54% of whom are Hispanic and 43% of whom are considered low-income based on their eligibility for a federal Pell grant. The Pew Research Center found that Hispanic students are less likely to obtain a four-year degree than their white, black, or Asian peers.
Many of the barriers for these students, Renick said, are created by the university as an institution, not by the course work. Bureaucracy, for instance, ends up pushing some students out, he said.
“We have actually designed this in a way that is hostile for students,” Bridget Burns of the University Innovation Alliance said at the October seminar. “It’s a design problem, it’s a design solution.”
EAB assists universities in helping their students navigate bureaucracy. It can be as simple as a series of strategically timed text messages ahead of deadlines for financial aid and scholarship applications. At Georgia State, students can access an automated help desk through an app that helps them get the right forms to the right office at the right time. The app sends notifications when deadlines are approaching, and alerts counselors when students miss deadlines.
This obviously requires more counselors than most universities employ, Renick said. To make the individualized attention possible, Georgia State hired 42 additional counselors. With a caseload of around 300 to 1, those counselors had more than 50,000 one-on-one conversations instigated by the app alerts.
“When you begin to deliver this kind of attention at scale,” Renick said, it pays off.
The cost of the counselors was roughly $2 million, Renick said, a cost more than recouped in tuition thanks to student retention.
For many students, support during the school year is equally critical. Many are juggling jobs and family obligations in addition to their course work. Students who earn C's in foundational courses are often unprepared to for coursework that builds on that foundation, Renick said, they become more likely to drop courses, fall behind, and eventually fail to complete their degree. Now counselors at Georgia State receive alerts when a student makes a C. The university also embeds peer tutors in many of its core courses so that students get help before their grades suffer.
Georgia State now graduates minority and low-income students at the same rate as white and middle-class students, Renick said, it has closed the “graduation gap.”
That success, Burns said, is proof that colleges and universities have played a part in stacking the deck against those who do not have middle-class advantages, like college counselors, tutors, and parents familiar with higher education systems.
“We’ve been coming at this totally wrong,” Burns said. “We’ve been assuming there’s something different about at-risk students, but really the system makes it difficult for everyone, and at-risk students don’t have the support system to overcome it.”