STEM Central

A Community of Practice for NSF STEM Projects

Who Gets to Graduate?

The NY Times Magazine had a fascinating article on May 15 (“Who Gets to Graduate?") that should resonate with many STEP grantees. The article highlights attempts at the University of Texas at Austin (my alma mater; 1970) to improve the success rate of students who traditional have a tough time making it to graduation. Sound familiar?

Of the many interesting aspects of this lengthy article, I thought I would be useful to focus on institutionalization. This is a campus-wide initiative that has its roots in the efforts of one chemistry professor, David Laude. Fifteen years ago (1999), to address students that were struggling in his introductory course, he began offering a special, smaller section for students he considered at-risk. He maintained high expectations, but provided a number of enrichment and mentoring opportunities for these students. Sound familiar?

This program (the Texas Interdisciplinary Plan, or TIP) proved very successful. TIP students not only succeeded in intro chemistry; they ended up having graduation rates that exceeded the UT average. Now, Dr. Laude is senior vice provost for enrollment and graduation, and he is tasked with improving UT’s four-year graduation rate from 52% to 70% by 2017. This effort will require considerable resources, and will include a variety of initiatives, but the expansion of TIP and the lessons learned from its implementation will have a prominent role.

TIP was never funded by STEP, which began in 2003, but it has all the ingredients, and focuses on several issues and evidence-based practices that are common among STEP projects (e.g., student development, “learning” communities, supplemental instruction, peer mentoring) and focuses on a group of students who are statistically at-risk. Its success has resulted not only in institutionalization within the chemistry department, but in a major initiative to scale up to the entire campus.

I can relate to the students described in the article. In 1966, when I entered UT as a freshman, I fit the profile of many of the students that TIP is targeting. Though I was not a member of an ethnic or racial minority, I was from a lower middle class, blue collar family, and was a first-generation high school graduate.

I was fortunate enough to pass through the gauntlet that traps so many students from this kind of background. Although I completed my degree on time, there were definitely close calls. I seriously considered dropping out after my freshman year. Money was not an issue. In my day, tuition and fees were very low at UT (the only money that I ever borrowed was to by a record player!) The campus was large (though small in comparison to today!) and intimidating, and I was ill-prepared to deal with the social challenges I would face. Without some excellent mentoring along the way, I could have easily foundered.

Kudos to UT Austin for pushing so hard on a completion agenda! Their efforts in recent years to improve undergraduate education have given me reason to be proud of my alma mater. Hook ‘Em Horns!!

Of course, UT Austin is not alone! Many STEP projects are accomplishing great things and might be equally deserving of a lengthy article in the NY Times! And although the Times is very unlikely to publish articles about all of our projects, STEP Central is more than willing! So share your stories with your colleagues. Submit your story to a STEP Central Working Group, or write a short series of blog posts.