Paula Myrick Short recalls the day she walked in to address the Faculty Senate shortly after she arrived in 2013 and fired off the sobering dose of reality that began an academic cultural revolution.
“My first message to the Senate was, ‘You know, folks, Sam Houston State’s graduation rate is 53 percent. Ours is 46. Have we got a problem?’”
At that moment, it became clear President Renu Khator’s vision to elevate academic performance to match the University’s recently achieved Tier One research status was in motion, and it was her new Provost who was developing the strategy and delivering the orders.
Short, whose background is organizational development and change, says the challenge was how to march students toward degree completion in a timely manner and obtain both student and faculty buy-in. She spent the first year conducting what amounted to a forensic investigation, developing baseline data to understand the University’s needs for resources, including advisors dedicated to minimizing unnecessary credit hours, which in turn lowers cost and shortens time to graduation.
“One of my strategies was to get the campus as a group to begin talking about ‘This is where we are; this is where we believe the research says we ought to be. How do we get there?’” Short said. “I was building an evidence-based way of doing business here.”
If you are a student reading this article, chances are you are a beneficiary. Seventy percent of the 2016 freshman class is registered for the UHin4 program, which offers fixed-rate tuition to incoming freshmen who maintain a 30-hour course load and graduate in four years.
“The program also holds you accountable,” said Joseph Blount, a junior in the C. T. Bauer College of Business, who enrolled in the first UHin4 cohort.
While many universities offer fixed tuition for on-time graduation, Short says UH is unique. Students are required to sign an agreement, adding the psychological element of entering into a contract. Rather than simply expecting students to stay on track or risk program status, UHin4 employs resources dedicated to pushing them along.
When a technology professor refused to admit a UHin4 student to a class that was at capacity but he needed it, Short intervened. “We went whippin’ over there and said ‘We have to do something. We’ll work with you. You have to meet the needs of that student.’ Whereas before, the student would fall through the cracks.”
“That’s education malpractice,” Short scoffed, when asked how she would respond to those who may criticize so much handholding. “We have a responsibility as educators. We can make or break a student by the way we treat them here.”
And that goes for transfer students, too, who were among those graduating, on average, with 151 credit hours for a bachelor’s degree requiring 120. Short and her team spearheaded an effort to coordinate with Houston area community colleges to ensure a future transfer student’s coursework is aligned with their eventual UH degree program.
Short says the added benefit of the Houston Guided Pathways to Success (GPS) program is the confidence instilled in students who transfer. “Part of it is being able to see a four-year pathway.”
Short has witnessed the culture shift. She established performance-funding models for all colleges. Today those colleges talk about their success measures, whereas before they expected funding. “What we’ve done is create ownership of student success.”
Another initiative, called “Purpose First,” ties degree programs to future employment. Using predictive analytics, students learn their degree aptitude and get a realistic view of their desired career. Rather than simply advising, industry has a seat at the table, shaping curricula to ensure graduates are highly qualified. At an engineering career fair in February, one recruiter remarked at the success her international oil and gas services firm has hiring UH students.
“I think we’ve come a long way,” says Short, when asked what she sees when she peers out of her office window down University Drive. While the foundation is laid, she concedes, more work lies ahead. President Khator is committed to a 60 percent six-year graduation rate by 2020. Short says the University is on track to get there.