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UTEP Seeks Success Beyond Graduation Rate

by Reeve Hamilton

In the farthest corner of West Texas, nestled between the Franklin Mountains and the U.S.-Mexico border and hundreds of miles from any other public university in the state, the University of Texas at El Paso and its fortress-like buildings occupy one of the state’s most exotic campus settings.

The perspective of its president, Diana Natalicio, is similarly distinct. She eschews commonly accepted higher-education measures like graduation rates — which show that just one out of 10 entering UTEP freshmen graduate within four years — and seeks to redefine what determines a university’s success. She said UTEP, which has more than 18,000 undergraduate students and accepts nearly 97 percent of its applicants, aims to demonstrate that a university “could actually achieve both access and excellence.

Critics say it is failing in its core responsibility of graduating students. According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, after six years, just 35 percent of UTEP students have graduated; only 46 percent get their degrees in a decade.

The highest four-year graduation rate at a public Texas university is the hardly boast-worthy 53 percent at the University of Texas at Austin. In a nod to the growing span of the typical college experience, the six-year graduation rate has become the standard in higher-education measures. In Texas, it is roughly 49 percent, which ranks 17th in the country, according to the coordinating board.

Natalicio acknowledges that the numbers are low, and says the university is working on improvements. But she questions whether they accurately reflect the success of an institution serving a majority-minority community made up mostly of students who historically might not have been able to pursue higher education.

“It’s regrettable that graduation rates have become such a handy weapon to use against institutions that serve low-income and first-generation students,” she said.

For El Pasoans like Athena Matyear, a senior studying organizational and corporate communications, there are few options beyond UTEP “It changed my life,” she said, adding that if there had been more stringent admissions requirements, “I wouldn’t have gotten in. My scores weren’t good enough. I probably never would have gone to school.”

Other players in the escalating debate over the effectiveness of Texas higher education place a high value on measurements like graduation rates. During a January speech in Austin, Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economist who has often criticized Texas academia, singled out UTEP.

“With such a high dropout rate, I ask, why doesn’t Texas simply close UT-El Paso?” he asked.

Natalicio said the graduation rate Vedder cited, as measured by the federal government, only calculates the cohort of first-time students who enter a university and move through it in a precise amount of time, giving no credit for transfers in or out or for part-time students. In fact, it only takes into account 30 percent of UTEP’s enrolled undergraduate students, she said.

“If you collect a lot of data and you look at it, you recognize that some metrics fit certain institutions better than others,” she said. “Graduation rate is much more about the demographics of your student population than it is anything about your efficiency or performance.”

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