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Sul Ross

Story on Texas’ “dropout factories”

Last month I blogged about this Washington Monthly story about colleges with extremely low graduation rates. Here’s a Star-Telegram article about that, which contains some reaction from a couple of the Texas schools named in the original piece.

One factor holding down graduation rates is the changing makeup of college students. Once, most lived at four-year schools. But a growing trend is first-generation college students from working-class families who help support relatives while taking classes.

That’s a factor at Sul Ross, President Ricardo Maestas said.

Many Sul Ross students take longer than six years to graduate because they have to balance school with work, he said. The Alpine-based university of 2,124 students offers rural communities in 19 counties near Big Bend programs in education, agriculture and animal science. Sul Ross is the only viable higher education option for many students between El Paso and San Antonio, Maestas said.

“You can’t judge a book by its cover or by one data point,” he said. “Yes, we have some problems we have to solve.”

[…]

Maestas said officials at Sul Ross are trying to find out why more students don’t finish. They are also taking a new look at recruiting efforts; students from large cities may not be the right fit for a rural school, he said. Every year, the university loses about half of the entering class, in part because some 84 percent are working students and 53 percent are low income.

It’s at least possible that if the study conducted by the Washington Monthly had used an eight year deadline for graduation, Sul Ross might have fared better, though I doubt it would make that much of a difference. If they really are trying to figure out where their problems are and to take concrete steps to address them, that’s the main thing. Remember, though, that the schools Sul Ross was compared to for this story were schools with a similar profile; in other words, other schools with a high percentage of low income, working students. There’s plenty they can learn from the schools that have better graduation rates.

Michael Dressman, interim provost at UT-Downtown, said that while the ranking shows that improvement is needed, it doesn’t present a complete story. The school is open-admission and serves largely students who also work.

“It’s a kick in our morale,” Dressman said. “We know that we are doing a good job. We are trying to do a better job every year.”

He said his school is being judged on the staying power of a sliver of students — there are 1,000 first-time freshmen in a total enrollment of 12,900.

“I say, judge us by our graduates,” he said. “We rank 33rd in the country in the number of Hispanics graduating with bachelor’s degrees. Many of them took 10 or 12 years to get it, but they graduated.” Dressman said one successful alum is state Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston.

That’s a pretty non-responsive answer. Again, UH-Downtown, like Sul Ross, was judged in comparison to peer institutions, not to the UTs and A&Ms of the world. That includes a lot of open admission, majority minority, schools that serve working students. If those schools can graduate 50% or more of their students, so can UH-D. What’s their plan to do better? Their current and future students have a right to know that.