Finding ways to scale down UT

Enrollment panel wants more students out within 5 years, faculty ratio lowered

By Sharon Jayson
Austin American-Statesman
Tuesday, November 11, 2003

A University of Texas panel of students, faculty and administrators is expected to approve a sweeping proposal this month designed to shrink the swollen, 51,438-student campus by offering incentives to graduate earlier.

The proposal, which includes a broad range of recommendations, is set for final panel approval before Thanksgiving. It then goes to UT President Larry Faulkner for his approval.

The Enrollment Strategy Task Force has been studying enrollment issues at the UT System's flagship for more than a year. Faulkner supports requiring students to earn their bachelor's degrees within five years and taking steps to reduce the student-faculty ratio.

Committee members are convinced that 48,000 to 50,000 students is the optimal size for the university, and that more spots can be created for freshmen if other students are encouraged to graduate faster.

One of the panel's most sweeping recommendations is a plan to entice students to graduate within five years by taking 14 credit hours each semester, up from this fall's average of 13 hours. Students could not receive merit-based scholarships or be in honors programs if they didn't take at least 14 hours. Those who enroll for heavier course loads would also be given priority for class registration.

The panel also is expected to recommend funneling graduates who return to take classes into the continuing education program. The panel also plans to suggest that admissions officials explore ways to curb the number of students allowed to return to campus after being placed on academic probation or dismissal.

"Students are having far too much fun," said Bruce Walker, UT admissions director and a task force member. "Parents are not trying to hurry their kids. They see it as a one-time deal in their life and say they ought to enjoy it."

Thirty-nine percent of undergraduates at UT earn their degrees in four years.

Of the 1,222 students readmitted for this fall, 44 percent were returning from scholastic dismissal or probation. Just under 5 percent were graduates back to take nondegree classes. About half were students who had taken time off and wanted to return.

Clark Patterson, who received his UT bachelor's degree in government in 1988, has been taking classes at his alma mater ever since, piling up 219 hours at last count. This fall, the photographer and massage therapist is enrolled in sociology and government classes that he says cost him $1,223.

"I just take a class almost like a hobby, the way some people play golf or go bowling," he said.

Liberal arts senior Tyler Carson, 22, has taken up to 24 hours in a semester and expects to have between 180 and 190 hours by graduation. He plans to graduate in four years with five majors: humanities, religious studies, cultural anthropology, classical civilization and history.

"This is one way you don't close off a lot of options," he said.

During its yearlong review, the panel found that the average undergraduate earns 141 hours for a single major; 120 hours is the minimum required for a bachelor's degree.

University officials also want to reduce the faculty-student ratio of almost 21 students per faculty member to 19. The ratio at most public universities is closer to 16-to-1 or is even lower.

Jim Boon, a panel member and the executive director of the Texas Exes alumni group, said UT's student-faculty ratio hurts the university.

"The thing I hear most is, how come we're not rated higher?" he said. "When you start dissecting the rating, unfortunately one of the key ingredients is the student-faculty ratio."

Rusty Ince, chairman of the UT Senate of College Councils and a student member of the task force, said students are "huge fans" of anything that will improve what he calls a "pitiful" student-faculty ratio.

Advertising professor Isabella Cunningham, who chairs the task force, said tightening up will allow the university to move students through faster and, within five years, open up spots for up to 1,000 more freshmen.

"You move people through the pipeline, so there are more openings available," she said.

sjayson@statesman.com; 445-3620