DianaNatalicioDiana Natalicio has been the president of the University of Texas at El Paso since 1988. During her time at the school, which educates mostly low-income and first-generation college students, she’s worked to improve college access and completion while also increasing the school’s endowment and research capabilities. She has been elected chair of the board of directors of the American Council on Education, the major coordinating body for all the nation’s higher education institutions. ACE represents the presidents of all accredited U.S. institutions of higher learning. Natalicio recently spoke with the College Guide about how to measure college success and improve American higher education.

WM: How did you work to improve completion rates at the University of Texas at El Paso?

DN: We’ve been on a 20-year quest. For the first decade we worked to raise educational aspirations in the K-12 sector in our region so that more students wanted to go to college and teachers and parents supported and prepared them.

In the second decade we’ve focused on our own policies at the university and made progress toward increasing degree completion efficiency. The students on this campus are nearly all employed while enrolled. Many of them also have families to support.

WM: How did you improve efficiency in courses?

DN: We examined behavior patterns of student progress (or lack of it) toward a degree. We’ve used that data to schedule classes when students needed them.

Let’s suppose that we scheduled two sections of a science laboratory but we knew from student demand that we were going to need more laboratories. We’d schedule class sections to accommodate students and then stagger the times for those who have jobs or family responsibilities. This could mean teaching the classes in the evenings or on weekends.

WM: What are the major challenges facing American colleges?

DN: Access and affordability for low-income students. The cost of attendance at public institutions has increased because of declining state appropriations. There’s been a shift from state support to student tuition. Students are incurring more debt. As a society our priority has not been on higher education in the way that it needs to be if we’re going to be globally competitive.

WM: How can we address that?

DN: We have to make the case for it. Any money we spend on education we’re investing in our own future. When someone else gets a degree I’m going to benefit because that individual becomes a more productive citizen and pays more taxes.

We have to reset our priorities; we squander talent on the basis of income. The 25 percent of students in the highest income bracket have something like a 70 to 75 percent likelihood of completing a baccalaureate degree, while for the 25 percent in the lowest bracket, it’s 7 or 8 percent.

We have allowed ourselves to drift in this direction of socioeconomic disparities in educational attainment, and we’re going to have to correct our course. The University of Texas at El Paso has the lowest net price of any research university in the United States. We’ve been able to do that because we’ve made a real commitment to prioritize affordability. Even though our state appropriations have declined we haven’t tried to completely fill that gap with tuition increases because our students can’t afford it.

WM: You had problems due to the unique challenges low-income and first generation students face. How much of that is just due to the cost of college?

DN: I can only speak to the student population that we serve. These students are extremely sensitive to any change in their financial picture. With any kind of change in financial aid, we see immediately a behavioral change in our students the next semester. When summer Pell grants were discontinued,, our enrollment in the summer went down significantly because students didn’t have money for school.

WM: What is the graduation rate at the University of Texas at El Paso now?

DN: I’m so glad you ask about graduation rates; I don’t believe in them. I believe in degree completion. Graduation rates assume that a student goes to an institution and stays there for four (or six) years. And in calculating the graduation rate, the denominator is the number of full-time freshman who enter in a given year, and the numerator is the number of those, and only those, who graduate from the same institution four, five, or six years later.

That means 70 percent of the students who graduate from UTEP never get counted in our graduation rate because they didn’t start as full-time freshmen on our campus. They transferred from a community college or they started as part-time students, or they started in the spring. The traditional graduation rate measure assumes that students packed bags and went away to school for four years, stuck together as a cohort and graduated together. Only 15 percent of students do that today.

Graduation rates are a big problem in how we assess the productivity of institutions. The American Council on Education and other organizations are working on finding a metric that better captures the progress of students wherever they happen to be.

WM: I get what you’re saying but what is the difference between success and failure? How can you tell when schools just aren’t doing a job with the students they’ve got?

DN: This is the big issue. We don’t have a very good metric. One strategy that people are talking about now is following students by some kind of unit tracking that can monitor them wherever they go. Every institution that’s played a role would get a certain percentage of credit for whatever they contributed to a student’s degree.

I don’t have the silver bullet. I don’t know how to say, “this should replace graduation rates.” A lot of smart people are working on it. Until we get that figured out we’re not going to be able to make institutional assessments effectively.

WM: Would we need to bring together all of these smart people to create alternative measures if we really just, well, funded higher education properly? If all students had the money they needed both for education and for living expenses, the way Americans did in the aftermath of World War II, and the way they do in Sweden today, couldn’t we measure them all the same way?

DN: I’ve asked myself that often. What if we had a federal program such that every person with a certain level of talent and motivation got all educational expenses paid? Absolutely you could then compare institutions. It would be a great way to assure that we are measuring the same thing at every institution. Universities like mine would be amazingly effective if our students didn’t have to deal with the financial challenges that they face every single day.

WM: In what area does the American university most need help?

DN: We are often defending ourselves against allegations of practices that are not in fact the case. We are alleged, for example, to be against accountability. but most of those allegations are actually not true. But we haven’t done a very good job of articulating the many changes and adjustments that have occurred in higher education. There’s a huge range of institutions. When I listen to criticism of American colleges I find it very hard to find UTEP in the picture that I see critics painting about higher education. We don’t hear enough about public universities that serve low-income students, and there are a lot of such institutions. There’s far too much focus on excessive salaries or facilities and too little on the success of students and the institutions that serve them.

WM: What does the American university do best?

DN: We offer greater opportunities to young people than is the case in most places across the world. The public universities in particular are committed to this. We’ve been supported in that by community colleges and others that are partnering with us to make that affordability and accessibility real for students. [Image via]

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer