New Plans to Improve Performance at T.S.U.
With a mere 3 percent of Texas Southern University students graduating within four years — and less than a quarter earning their degree in a decade — the school’s president, John Rudley, knows that people are asking “What’s wrong with this institution?” and “What are they going to do about it?”
Mr. Rudley, the person charged with finding a path forward for the college with the state’s worst graduation rate, said he constantly asked himself those same questions.
“We’re in an industry that has benchmarks,” Mr. Rudley said of the graduation rates, “and that’s a benchmark I’m not going to support.”
Critics say the low graduation rate at T.S.U. is unacceptable. With predictions that more than 60 percent of the nation’s jobs will require a higher-education credential in 2020, the same critics say that such low-performing universities could create economic problems by not successfully preparing the state’s work force for the future.
Primarily a commuter campus, T.S.U. is a historically black college in the urban Third Ward in Houston, and it receives more state financing per student than the University of Texas at Austin.
Would-be students “should be looking at the community college and not be lured into going to a four-year institution that’s not going to be able to graduate them,” said Bill Hammond, the president of the Texas Association of Business, which has been pushing the Legislature to address the issue of college completions.
“It’s unfair to the kids when they have little or no probability of graduating,” he added. (The Texas Association of Business is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune.)
But Glenn Lewis, the chairman of T.S.U.’s board of regents, said that the university’s low numbers, which are among the nation’s worst, reflect a school willing to take chances on a high volume of students who are inadequately prepared — culturally, academically and economically — for college.
“I’m not sure that I agree that the graduation rate says what most people think it says,” he said. “But we do recognize that we’re going to be evaluated on that, and we’ve got to get that up.”
Mr. Rudley said that to appreciate how T.S.U.’s rates could be so low, it is necessary to understand the university’s past as an urban institution “for students who didn’t have 1,500 on their SATs.”
T.S.U., born out of segregation 85 years ago following a lawsuit over race-based discrimination at the University of Texas School of Law, has a student body that is roughly 83 percent black, 6 percent Hispanic and 3 percent white.
T.S.U.’s reputation — and its enrollment — sustained a blow in 2006 following an administrative accounting scandal that led to the ouster and indictment of President Priscilla Slade, and the removal of the entire board of regents. (Ms. Slade later made a plea deal and reached a financial settlement.) Throughout its struggles, and even when some questioned the university’s viability, T.S.U. has had staunch protectors in the State Legislature.
“We have traditionally white universities — it’s called Texas A&M. We need traditionally black universities,” said Representative Garnet Coleman, a Democrat whose district includes T.S.U. “That aspect of our culture is extremely important, because some things are unique to African-Americans.”
Mr. Rudley, who is in his fourth year as president, said T.S.U. had historically been shortchanged, both by the state and by college leaders who failed to make the necessary strategic moves to grow the university.
He said his administration is taking a more hands-on, student-centric approach that should improve academic achievement, which he said had not previously received sufficient attention. Despite what the graduation rates suggest, Mr. Rudley said the campus is in the midst of a renaissance.
It’s a far cry from six years ago, when campus grounds had been neglected and buildings sat in disrepair. The center of campus, which was once only concrete, is now lined with grass and trees. And the university has gotten its financial house in order.
This self-improvement project, along with the administration’s desire to upgrade T.S.U.’s reputation, is filtering down to the student body. Brianna Isaac, a freshman from Tyler who is studying education, said, “I want to be the one to bring those statistics up.”
Ms. Isaac said she had turned down several universities with higher graduation rates. “I knew what I was getting into,” she said.
The efforts to right the ship at T.S.U. have not been cheap. Texas Southern University currently spends nearly as much per student as Texas A&M University, which has a four-year graduation rate of about 51 percent. Mr. Rudley said that is a result of the process of hiring almost an entirely new administrative staff.
Mr. Rudley came from the University of Houston System, where the downtown campus has an equally low four-year graduation rate. One of the first moves he made when he took over in 2008 was to introduce admissions standards.
T.S.U. had been one of the state’s last open-enrollment public universities. Now prospective students must have at least a 2.5 grade point average and either a combined reading and math score of 820 on the SAT or a 17 on the ACT.
In the past, anyone could enroll, but the school currently accepts only about three-quarters of its applicants, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
“Most of us had fought that over the years,” Mr. Coleman, the state representative, said of the admissions change. “We thought access should be free and open.”
Mr. Coleman ultimately came to view the switch as a positive. But he said that accountability measures like graduation rates should take into account how tuition costs have increased over time and the effect that had on students’ ability to finish their degrees.
“People like to talk about slackers when the reason people don’t move forward and finish in four years probably has little to do with slacking and more to do with working,” he said.
Part of T.S.U.’s student-centric push is a new academic village, financed with a $2.7 million grant, that houses 390 of T.S.U.’s 1,100 freshmen. They get around-the-clock support from live-in T.S.U. staff members with the explicit intention of graduating the entire group in four years.
To meet that goal, students in the academic village are pushed to take at least 15 credit hours each semester and are encouraged not to hold jobs. Mr. Rudley said graduation rates are unlikely to rise without applying pressure. “If you just let them do things on their own, they’ll start out with 15 hours and drop down to 12 hours, then drop down to 9 hours,” he said.
James Smiley, a sophomore who has grown up in Houston, is working his way through T.S.U. He said the university’s graduation rates had no direct bearing on his personal success.
“When I look at the numbers, I just use that for self-motivation,” he said.
Mr. Rudley said he would like to see the university’s 12 percent six-year graduation rate rise to 28 percent to 35 percent.
While that is hardly a top-tier ambition, Mr. Rudley called it “decent and respectable and matching with our mission.”
That may not satisfy critics, he said, but “I want them to say, in the same breath, ‘They’re working on it.’ ”